Women in America

Women in America

Nov. 30 2004 4:40 PM

Women in America

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Linda Chavez
7:36 a.m.  Wednesday  11/13/96 

       Herb Stein is right to distinguish between the two threads running through these conversations, the poverty problem and the women's problem, but wrong when he implies that poverty affects men and women equally. It doesn't. Poor women are far more likely to live in poverty with their children, which is both more personally difficult for the affected individuals and of greater social consequence than the poverty most males typically experience. And women who head households are particularly prone to poverty: 38.5 percent of all female-headed households are below poverty level, compared with only 7.5 percent of married-couple households (according to the most recent Census Bureau figures at my fingertips, Poverty in the United States: 1992).
       As for the "women's problem," I think it's far too glib to blame men, as Bergmann seems to. "Men are walking away from long-term commitment" at least in part because women let them--and insist on the same freedom themselves. I find it highly ironic that feminists who championed no-fault divorce laws in the 1960s and '70s, derided alimony, and even urged sex-neutral standards for child custody now seem surprised that the consequences of these policies have been rotten for women.
       Feminism made men the enemy, which may be why so few women today identify themselves as feminists. It's a self-defeating and socially destructive attitude that gets us nowhere in improving women's lives.

Katha Pollitt
8:52 a.m.  Wednesday  11/13/96 

       Herb Stein asks whether, poverty aside, "being a woman, or being a single woman" is a social problem requiring a societal solution. What does he have in mind? A national dating service? It's kind of surreal, this insistence on seeing changing gender relations as a matter of problematic women. Can it be that we're using e-mail to talk about that old 19th-century standby, The Woman Question?
       About that so-called breakdown of the family. The replacement of lifelong marriage with more fluid arrangements is something both sexes seem to want. Certainly it's more in accord with other modern values, like choice, mobility, personal freedom, equality, expressivity, and happiness. Some anti-feminists talk about "helping" women by making divorce more difficult. But most divorce petitions are filed by women, and most divorces are pretty mutual. Usually people don't want to spend the rest of their lives with someone who dislikes them. If divorce became truly hard to get, people would simply move on informally, the way they do in Ireland.
       Herb Stein urges us not to "despair" of altering values through persuasion, alluding (I think) to the powerful effect of "the Feminine Mystique." Well, perhaps if more men listened to Betty Friedan, they'd get more out of their relationships with women and children! It's no diminishment of Friedan's achievement, though, to point out that the conditions that favored the modern women's movement had been building for 100 years. By contrast, those that once forced people into marriage, and then forced them to stay together (at least on paper) no longer exist. Sermons wouldn't change that (besides, who would give them?). You'd have to roll back the 20th century.

Barbara Bergmann
9:09 a.m.  Wednesday  11/13/96 

       Linda Chavez's assertion that "feminism made men the enemy" needs an answer. Feminism is a movement to gain women equality with men, and an end to the lack of freedom, lack of opportunity, and disrespect under which they had been suffering. Under the old regime, men had freedoms and opportunities denied to women that many women wanted. While men benefited from that system, many were open-minded about changing it, or we wouldn't have gotten this far. But, let's face it, there are some men who don't like to see women compete with them, and those men are enemies of women. Our home-grown Ayatollahs, like Pat Robertson, are also enemies, and it's a good thing, not a bad thing, that they are now recognized as such. Most men--and that includes my father, my husband, and my son--take a positive attitude toward women's equality, as do most women, whether they call themselves feminists or not.
       Some women, like Phyllis Schlafly, are allies of the Ayatollahs, and in my book that makes them enemies of women. How about you, Linda Chavez? Are you for women's equality?
       As to why married women take jobs, let's stop repeating the canard that they are forced to do it by economic necessity and would prefer to stay home. Women steadily increased their jobholding in the period between 1870 and 1970, a period in which men's pay quadrupled. Those women weren't taking jobs to make up for men's declining pay, or because it took two paychecks to achieve the standard of living that previously had been achieved with one, or to pay the family's taxes. Rather, they were drawn in because women's wages, like men's, had been increasing over that period, and holding a job became gradually more advantageous, as compared with staying home. Besides, as Betty Friedan so memorably taught us, going to a job turned out to be a far better way of life for many women than staying home--more interesting, gaining more respect, more power in the family, more ability to leave bad relationships. Since the early '70s, men's average real pay has been in decline, but women's pay has continued increasing, until a few years ago.

Kate O'Beirne
9:27 a.m.  Wednesday  11/13/96 

       Betty Friedan points out that it takes two paychecks to raise a family, which is why the majority of married women work outside the home. But surveys show that mothers with young children would prefer to be home until children are school-age "if they could afford to." Shouldn't what mothers want, in the best interest of their children, be part of this discussion? They prefer raising their own children full time to subsidized child care. (When mothers do seek child care, their preference is for care by relatives or in small, family settings--not the center-based care which is the only setting the government has been willing to subsidize.)
       The typical second earner in a family contributes about 30 percent to a family's income, and the federal tax burden is roughly 28 percent. Working mothers aren't on the job to boost their family's economic well-being, but rather to meet the demands of government. The unprecedented tax burden placed on families with children, owing to the failure of the personal exemption to keep pace with inflation, certainly doesn't recognize that raising children is "essential social labor, not some little private indulgence," as Katha Pollitt noted.
       Why don't we agree that mothers not be taxed out of the home against their wishes?

Betty Friedan
2:01 p.m.  Wednesday  11/13/96 

       I don't want to see this discussion slip back into the old paradigm of whether women should or shouldn't work outside the home. This is obsolete. I am getting tired of the necessity of citing the research that children of women who work outside the home--except for conditions of terrible family tragedy--are at least as well-off, and in many cases better-off, than children of full-time housewife/mothers.
       The wonderful research that came out of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women showed that women who combined marriage, motherhood, and a profession (while they may seem to suffer more stress because it is hard to juggle it all) had more happiness and more sense of control over their lives. When things went wrong in one area--like the marriage--satisfaction in the other areas helped compensate, and vice versa. Such women continued to have good mental health even after menopause, whereas in previous studies, the mental health of women declined when they were no longer needed as full-time mothers. So much of this discussion refuses to recognize that women live to be 80 years old today, and that there is no way that they can spend even a majority of those years as mothers.
       Unless there is real understanding of work outside the home as a basic part of every woman's life, then you are not discussing things that are relevant to modern life. Would every woman rather have a husband that shares the housework and child care? I've had years of at least publicly living that dream, and it had its satisfactions and it had its problems. I still have a little bit of that dream, and I think a lot of women do. However, you can't have these debates in terms of what patterns some or most people may have lived for part of their lives. It may be part of people's nostalgia, but it is not the reality for most years of most people's lives today.

Herb Stein
2:33 p.m.  Wednesday  11/13/96 

       I think it would contribute to clarity if we were careful about using the words "society" and "government." Thus, Pollitt writes: "Why shouldn't society underwrite it (raising children)--not just for the poor, but for everyone?" But there is no "society" out there. There are just some people. So the question is why shouldn't some people underwrite the raising of children by some other people? To think about that, you would have to specify which people are to do the underwriting, and which to get it. Also, it would be helpful to know how much money we are talking about. Specifying the question more realistically doesn't answer the question, but it helps in thinking about it.
       Similarly, O'Beirne says:"Working women aren't on the job to boost their family's economic well-being, but rather to meet the demands of government." But, the "demands of government" are to pay for the women's retirement and medical care when they are old, to support the poorest women, to defend the country, and to service the debt we have now because we didn't pay for these and other things in the past--as well, of course, as some other things. So, if we are talking about helping working women by giving them some of their money back, we should specify where it comes from, not just "the government."
       Does everyone now agree with Bergmann to "stop repeating the canard that they (married women) are forced to do it (take jobs) by economic necessity and would prefer to stay at home"? She provides some evidence, and agreeing on that point would contribute to narrowing in on what the problem is.
       As a matter of personal privilege, I must respond to the implication that I propose a "societal solution" to the problem of being a single woman. Pollitt asks if I have in mind a "national dating service." In fact, it was Friedan who proposed the need for societal solutions, and it was I who expressed skepticism about the availability of societal solutions for aspects of "the problem" other than the poverty problem. It is true, although I don't suppose that Pollitt had this in mind, that about 20 years ago I wrote a column proposing a "Full Marriage Act" that would provide a reserve army of spouses for those who didn't find one on their own. That was intended as a satire of the "Full Employment Act," then under consideration. My column was written at a time when one could still joke about such things, confident that everyone would recognize the absurdity. That time, I fear, has now passed.