The Future of Feminism

Article excerpt

There is no doubt that the women's movement has transformed American society, opening life in many ways for women and men alike. There may be nostalgic yearnings for the feminine mystique, but women are no longer defined solely in terms of their relation - sexual, maternal, or domestic - to men. They are defining their lives themselves by their actions in society. But though the women's movement has begun to achieve equality for women on many economic and political measures, the victory remains incomplete. To take two of the simplest and most obvious indicators: women still earn more than 72 cents for every dollar that men earn, and we are nowhere near equality in numbers at the very top of decision making in business, government, or the professions.

In the simple goal of women's equal participation with men in the mainstream of society, we may be coming deceptively close to equality. But the remaining gap, especially the gap at the top, is never going to be closed by putting the problem in terms of women vs. men - the terms that defined our first stage of advance. I am both amused and frustrated by the chatter from some young feminist writers now about a "Third Stage" of feminism, when the fact is, we still haven't reached the second stage. We have won some general cultural consensus on women's equality with men (except for the far reaches of the religious Right). Still, in the work-place and in the home it is an equality that is lived with great difficulty, unnecessary guilt, a constant and some times desperate improvisation within outdated but unchanged structures: the male model of work and the female model of family. When starting out in their careers, women now earn roughly 90% of what men earn - still not equal, but close. It is having children that lowers women's earning power to a mere 70% of men's. More than ever, we now have to think about moving to the second stage: the way to live the equality that we fought for in a world of diverse new family combinations of women, men, and children.

The second stage is where we must move, women and men together. We need a new and politically active consciousness-raising to get us beyond the polarized and destructive male model of work and decision making and the undervalued women's model of life - the model that takes it as inevitable that having children is a woman's free individual choice to short-circuit permanently her earning power and her professional future. Women have far more political power than they may realize. To take one strikingly important example, women elected the president of the United States in 1996 by a 17-point gender gap. The issues by which President Clinton was reelected were those that matter most to women, health care, social security, social welfare, protection of the environment, and education. The power that women indubitably have, voting as they do in increasingly higher proportions than men, and becoming an ever-larger proportion of the labor force, must be used to restructure the terms and conditions at work and the already changing roles of women and men at home.

It's 17 years now since I originally proclaimed the need for a "second stage" if women, men, and children were to be able to live the equality that we fought for. I believed then, and believe with even more conviction now, that the organization of the family- or rather the whole diversity of families that now exists - is the new feminist frontier. We must still transform institutions, physically and culturally, from the office to the home, and change the patterns of career advancement beyond the current models that tacitly assume that the worker always has a wife at home to handle life for him. In the 17 years since I made that call in The Second Stage to restructure home and work, the real lives of women and men, living on new terms of equality, have changed in marvelous, messy, diverse, and still not yet completely chartered ways. Feminist theory, still preoccupied with the sexual politics and mired in stance of victimhood, has not caught up to this reality. …