Jewish World Review

Jan. 6, 2000/ 27 Teves, 5760

Womyn's movement wish list

By Cathy Young
Jewish World Review

AMONG THE MANY REVOLUTIONS of the 20th century, the revolution in the status of women has been undoubtedly the most bloodless, and in some ways the most remarkable. Unfortunately, like many other revolutions in human history, this one has veered off-track, often losing sight of its original goal: An equal partnership between women and men. With a new century ahead, this is a good time to put together an agenda, or at least a wish list, for the future.

The women's movement should wean itself from government as the principal solution to women's problems.The other day on a CNN "Millennium 2000" special, Gloria Steinem was asked to grade men's response to the changes in women's roles, particularly in terms of cooperating at home. "I fear here we're individualizing the problem," she replied. "We're asking what individuals are doing, and what we need are systemic political solutions." We are, she chided, "the only industrialized democracy in the world with no national system of child care."

Steinem has it exactly backwards. For most women (and men), caring for children is an individual, not national, issue. In the 1995 Virginia Slims poll, 60% of women said the solution to balancing work and family was more involvement by men, while only 26% named better day care. It's worth noting that women have made much greater strides toward workplace equality in America than in countries with national child care systems -- partly because smaller government makes for a more dynamic and flexible economy.

We should remember that so-called "women's issues" are usually men's issues, too. On the aforementioned CNN special, the changes in gender roles were being discussed only by women -- yet surely these men too are affected. What's more, equality may require women as well as men to change their attitudes. For every dad who won't touch a diaper, there's a mom who wants to protect her monopoly on the primary parent role and puts up more or less subtle barriers to equal parenting.

The women's movement should give way to an equal rights movement. Once, championing women's rights was synonymous with championing equal rights. That's no longer true; in some areas, notably child custody, it's men who are disadvantaged. Too often, feminists have pursued special protections at the expense of equality -- for instance, advocating a presumption of guilt when men are accused of violence against women while suggesting that violent women should be treated as victims. It's time for a movement that would oppose sexism no matter which gender it's directed against.

We must realize that equality means equal opportunity and more options, not equal results. While there is much science has yet to discover about gender differences, it seems likely that all abilities and preferences are not distributed evenly between the sexes. We may never achieve a society in which women make up 50% of corporate CEOs and engineers while men make up 50% of nurses and homemakers. The dogma that gender justice requires 50-50 parity can become a justification for coercive social engineering.

However, it's important to remember that sex differences are tendencies, not absolutes: many women have the talent for engineering and many men have the talent for nurturing. We need to make sure individuals' opportunities and choices are not limited by gender. And we need to expand options for men as we have done for women: fathers, like mothers, should be able to either pursue a career or care for their children full-time without social stigma, even if there will always be more mothers choosing to stay home.

In many ways, the women's movement has helped fulfil the promise of liberty and justice for all. In other ways, regrettably, it has undermined these principles by putting solidarity with women above equity. We are still far from what should be our goal -- a society in which people are judged not by the shape of their anatomy, but by the content of their character. Maybe, in the 21st Century, we can do better.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. Send your comments to her by clicking here.

©1999, Cathy Young