Gail Collins's When Everything Changed.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 23 2009 7:03 AM

The Real Secret of Feminism

Gail Collins reveals who actually made change happen.

(Continued from Page 1)

Collins skillfully conveys how wide, and how deep, the women's movement and its ripple effects have been. She makes important connections, for instance, between the women's movement and major civil rights figures like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Ella Baker, who are not usually discussed in this light. But as the book goes into the 1980s, the arc of the narrative takes a downward turn. The movement culture dissipates, the ERA is defeated (Collins gives Phyllis Schlafly all the credit for that dubious achievement), the sour economy pushes into the workforce women who don't want to be there. Soon feminism is popularly understood as professional women trying to "have it all"—and, before you know it, it's the 1990s and women are, maybe, resigned to "settling for less." And that is where many still are today.

So what happened? Why didn't the women's revolution more completely remake the way we live? Collins' focus on individual women as agents of change makes it hard for her to grapple with this question in an analytical way. She points to the difficulties of combining paid work with motherhood, the inflexibility of the work place, the resistance of many men to genuine equality in the home. The backlash in the media gets a mention—remember the famous 1986 Newsweek story warning educated women that their chances of marrying after 35 were comparable to being killed by a terrorist?—and probably should have gotten more space, when you consider how many times the press has announced the death of feminism and the swamp of misogyny that is talk radio and pop culture.

But there's another way to look at the sputtering progress of women. As the 1960s faded, feminism came up against the aggressive rise of the right, in which anti-feminist Christianity united with a broader hostility to "big government." By appealing to American principles of fair play and individual merit at a historical moment of unusual openness to liberationist ideals, feminists were able to knock down formal, legal barriers in a very short period of time. But what they couldn't do—and it wasn't for lack of trying—was to enlarge the social-welfare state.

American women, alone among those in Western industrialized nations, have no paid maternity leave (let alone parental leave) or (as of yet) national health care. Care of dependent family members—children, the elderly, the sick—is women's unpaid labor. Workers have few rights. Aid to poor families—including mothers and children temporarily poor due to divorce—is humiliating and stingy. Feminists have not even been able to eliminate the sexism embedded in the minimal welfare state we have: Unemployment insurance, the income tax, and social security are all structured around dated ideas about gender and work that disadvantage women. Moreover, as Republicans strengthened their hold on government, the legal gains women had made were undermined by judicial decisions, bureaucratic fiat, and simple lack of enforcement. Under George W. Bush, for example, the EEOC switched its focus from race and gender to religion.

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Americans, including many women, might recoil from "government spending" and "bureaucracy" and scorn as anti-meritocratic proposals to use quotas to increase the number of women political candidates or corporate board members. Such measures, though, go far to explain why Scandinavia always comes out on top of those international surveys of women's equality and why the United States is stuck in the middle of the pack. The struggle over health care reform, with or without the Stupak amendment banning federally funded abortion coverage, shows how difficult it will be to move up on the list.

The hidden hinge of Collins' narrative might well have been the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which was, amazingly, passed by both houses in 1971 and established a federally funded system of quality child care. Nixon appeared to be undecided about whether to sign it—he actually had two speeches drawn up, one for acceptance, the other for rejection. But in the end, possibly to placate conservative critics of his trip to China, he vetoed it, slamming it as "radical" and "communal." Subsequent attempts went nowhere, done in by the price tag and by furious rightwing and fundamentalist-Christian opposition. That was as close as American women ever got to affordable, accessible, quality childcare, a measure that would have greatly reduced the tensions, conflicts, and guilt that vex feminism today.

To end on a note that chimes with Collins' can-do, optimistic spirit, you could say it's amazing women have come as far as they have.

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