What Women Need

This book review is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.


What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women's Movement

By Deborah L. Rhode

256 pp. Oxford University Press $29.95

In 2012, the young singer Taylor Swift was asked if she was a feminist. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” she responded. “I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Two years later, in an interview with The Guardian, Swift recanted: “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men.”

Swift wasn’t wrong that feminism is stigmatized, but by pop-culture standards, her turnaround came late. Another superstar, Beyoncé, had long since gone from hedging on feminism to embracing it. At roughly the same time, Democrats began to run on women’s issues—even using the A-word, abortion, in television advertisements. Grotesquely, Republicans were positioning themselves as the true champions of women, including on contraception.

Something on the surface, if not in the structures of things, has shifted in recent years. Until a few years ago, even sympathetic celebrities and politicians cringed at anything feminist or even tangentially insistent on women’s rights. Perhaps things needed to get worse—with right-wingers talking about “legitimate rape” and everything suggested by it—before they could get better, particularly for the female voters courted by the parties. The Internet also allowed a critical mass of feminists to come out of hiding and speak on their own terms, among them Girls creator Lena Dunham, whom Swift credited as her feminist mentor.

These are mostly symbolic victories, though they matter, too, and feminists have been starved for them. Whether the groundswell can be channeled into something more sustainable and profound is another question. Not only is the opposition fierce, there are also deep fractures among those who call themselves feminists. “Divisions across age, race, class and ideology have complicated efforts to establish common priorities,” writes Deborah L. Rhode in What Women Want. Nonetheless, common priorities are exactly what Rhode hopes to establish with her book.

Oxford University Press

A professor of law at Stanford University and former director of its Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Rhode begins with a customary acknowledgment of the problem. “On virtually every major dimension of social status, financial well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than men,” she writes. “Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive rights are by no means secure. Women assume disproportionate burdens in the home and pay a price in the world outside of it.”

This is a slim book, but a broad one. An undertaking of this scope demands both comprehensiveness and analytical verve, and unfortunately, What Women Want has the former but almost none of the latter. Rhode’s book will have little for feminists to disagree with, but that is likely only because it is so cautious. In the perennial conversation about feminist unity, there are both political and practical reasons why feminisms, plural, win out. The bar for speaking for everyone, or trying to, is deservedly high—and this book doesn’t meet it.

Rhode’s chosen format is a chapter per issue—“Employment,” “Appearance,” “Sexual Abuse” among them—each one surveyed with a dry aggregation of studies and statistics. The occasional personal aside is a reminder that the book wasn’t generated by an enterprising robot, the kind that Rhode’s colleagues in engineering at Stanford must be developing. Rhode mentions that an undergraduate paper at an all-male college described a talk she gave on campus as a “hissy fit.” One only wishes for something resembling a hissy fit to go along with the sobering facts she amasses.

The other sign of humanity here is a brief accounting of interviews that Rhode conducted, seeking to answer the questions “Is the movement stalled?” and “What are the major obstacles it confronts?” Her only sources, however, are “the heads of leading women’s organizations.” They do important work. But as mostly white, middle-class professionals of a certain generational slice, typically living in the Northeast, they hardly speak for the whole of feminism.

Is it too much to ask that a university professor canvass some young people? Or that someone whose home base is in California—home to some of the most vibrant and effective feminist grassroots activism, especially by women of color and in reproductive justice—ask around a little?

Those women might have a different view from one of Rhode’s interviewees, Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. On whether there is a “women’s movement,” Northup says, “I don’t know that we have one. We have an organized policy sector. But movement suggests a broader cultural consciousness like what we had in the 1970s, and I don’t see that happening.”

Northup may be right that whatever we have now doesn’t look like the movement of the ’70s. But it is cramped and incomplete to have this be a final word on “broader cultural consciousness,” especially when Rhode refers to the Internet only in passing, mostly as a forum for women to be further harassed.

On the same narrowed front, Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women tells Rhode that only 6 percent of funding by nongovernmental organizations goes to women’s issues and “you’re not going to fund a revolution on 6 percent.” O’Neill may or may not be referring to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, a 2006 critique of relying on nonprofits like hers for social change. But Rhode never questions the premise that social transformation requires foundation funding.

(Photo courtesy Sindecuse Museum)

Pins owned by Clara Walworth MacNaughton (1854-1954), now in the collection of the Sindecuse Museum at University of Michigan.

If Rhode’s point is that the movement needs to be jumpstarted, cataloging ideas it has already long since come up with is unlikely to do it. I could not find any policy prescription in Rhode’s book that mainstream progressive organizations haven’t adopted; many are already on the Democratic Party platform. Rhode intones that “anti-poverty, contraceptive access, and universal preschool programs should be a priority.” Well, yes; the first is still not enough of a priority for either Democrats or some feminists. On the second, while Rhode mentions Hobby Lobby, she gives little airing to the policy that spurred the suit—requiring comprehensive contraceptive coverage on insurance plans—which, however contested, represents one of the few gains for reproductive health access in our time. The third policy just helped a Democrat win a long-shot mayoral race in New York City.

Rhode is never clear about whom she is writing for. There is plenty of need for a Feminism 101, but no novice would get through this book. At times, it has all of the dynamism of a human resources manual, all dutiful ground-covering without affect or insight. It is full of unobjectionable, anodyne statements like “Whatever oversight structures an employer chooses, one central priority should be the design of effective evaluation and rewards.”

No politician writing an election-positioning book could outdo the rote descriptors Rhode generates in a single page: “The stakes in Social Security reform are substantial,” she says, then declares in the next paragraph: “The political challenges of all of these issues are substantial.” And the sentence after the next: “But the stakes in these debates are too substantial to ignore.” Mentioning substance cannot substitute for it. And simply declaring a book an agenda is not enough to animate it. 

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