Symposium | The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

What Happened to Women?

By Katha Pollitt

Tagged FeminismLiberalism

On August 26, 1970, thousands of women marched down New York Fifth Avenue as part of the nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality. That demonstration has become part of the foundation legend of feminism. Who hasn’t seen the iconic photograph of jubilant women of every age pouring down the street arm in arm? Few, though, remember what those marchers were specifically calling for: free abortion on demand, free 24-hour community-controlled childcare, and equal opportunity in jobs and education.

Forty years and a world of social and cultural change later, how have those demands fared? Abortion is legal (which it was not in 1970), but spottily available and hugely contested. Childcare is expensive, inadequate, and the source of much guilt and blame. By contrast with today’s guarded, apologetic liberal-feminist discourse on these subjects, the language of 1970 sounds positively drunk with confidence. Abortion at no charge just for the asking? Selfish slut! Free childcare around the clock? Bad mommy! As for “community-controlled,” what does that even mean? Only “equal opportunity” sounds contemporary; not coincidentally, it is the only one of the three demands that is (almost) uncontested, at least as a principle. Americans today endorse the idea that women should have the same chances as men to excel at school and at jobs that men have historically held. Of course, plenty of people gripe that things have gone too far: Title IX has forced colleges to cancel men’s teams, “political correctness” and government bureaucracy forces employers to prefer “unqualified” women over deserving men, and so on. Moreover, if we overlook the dramatic impact of Roe v. Wade in 1973, of the three demands, equal opportunity is the one that has seen the most real, if uneven, continuing progress. Why is that?

Like liberalism, feminism has (at least) two aspects: an individualistic and libertarian side, and a social-welfare, “big government” side. The individualistic side of feminism (and liberalism) has been one of our history’s great success stories. The kinds of restrictions on women’s personal choices that were seen as natural and proper only a few decades ago now seem barely comprehensible. Was it really in 1960 that a judge threw a young woman out of a New York City traffic court for wearing pants? Were “stewardesses” ever fired for getting married? Could adult single women (and, in Connecticut, wives) be legally barred from getting birth control? Feminism has done a pretty good job of persuading society that at least in theory, doors that are open to men should be open to women too. That credo resonates with a culture that prizes self-determination and advertises even the Army (be all that you can be!) as an opportunity for personal growth. Like liberalism, feminism helped to expand all sorts of personal freedom and autonomy, most obviously in the area of sexual self-expression: It’s hard to imagine gay rights without it.

Unfortunately, also like liberalism, feminism has not succeeded in winning the kinds of government (let alone “community-controlled”) services and programs and enforcement of existing laws that would make it possible for women to take full advantage of “equal opportunity,” even within their own social class. Affirmative action to get women into skilled blue-collar jobs? There’s been no increase in women in the building and related trades since the 1970s. And when was the last time you heard anyone mention comparable worth, the plan to raise women’s wages by equalizing pay in female-dominated jobs with that in similar, mostly male occupations? Parking valets still make more than daycare teachers—and male parking valets make more than female ones. As for escape from an abusive spouse? Maternity leave? Daycare? A decent life as a single mother? Sure, if you can afford it.

The limited progress of feminism at large is replicated within liberalism itself. Plenty of liberals are uneasy with the implications of women’s emancipation from old structures and norms. I’m thinking, for example, of communitarian worries about the incursions of “the market” into family and community life, which to my ear come across as barely veiled critiques of working mothers, especially ones who enjoy their work and would find it degrading to be supported by a man (funny how we never hear fathers criticized for continuing to work no matter how much their wives earn). Liberal institutions—think tanks, magazines, websites, conferences, academic and policy institutes, and so on—are still mostly controlled by men, who just don’t notice if there are no women at the table, and for whom one female on a panel is a whole lot of woman.

What one rarely sees is a reconfiguration of liberal premises to put women’s rights, interests, needs, and priorities at the center. Indeed, the rise of conservative Christianity has caused far too many liberals to dream that benign neglect of women’s rights (reproductive rights especially), gay rights, and church/state separation would make possible some grand economic-progressive alliance for a new New Deal. It is still a little shocking to me that Barack Obama invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration—Rick Warren, who not only opposes legal abortion and gay marriage, but also believes God commands wives to obey their husbands and forbids divorce to battered women.

The tepid role of liberals in the welfare-reform debate is telling. It was, after all, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who abolished the principle that poor mothers and children were entitled to government help, and who signed a bill asserting that the cause of those women’s poverty was their lack of a husband—not lack of a job with a man-size wage. Even today, as one in eight Americans gets food stamps and one in two children receives food stamps before reaching the age of 20, we hear no significant calls for a comprehensive attack on the feminization of poverty, or policy proposals that take on board the multiple ways in which women are punished economically for the greater burden of caregiving they assume, without which society could not function. Outside feminist policy circles, we don’t hear much outrage about the ways in which a whole range of government rules and regulations, including income tax law, Social Security, and unemployment insurance, disregard working women’s different patterns of employment. But these structures, set up when the breadwinner husbands/stay-home wives was the norm, reinforce women’s secondary-earner status. We certainly don’t hear in-depth analyses of violence against women and its effects, or serious policy proposals about how to fight it. The whole way that the subordination of women pervades and shapes our economic, social, and cultural life—including the “equal opportunity” we all in theory support—is just not a vital theme in liberal discourse. The very words one might use to describe it—misogyny, patriarchy, male dominance, women’s oppression—are taboo for people who want to be taken seriously today.

What would a robust liberal commitment to women’s equality look like? Support for free abortion on demand would be a start—and how about some 24-hour, free childcare, with well-trained and well-paid staff? I’d like to see liberals wrestle with the ways our society disadvantages mothers, which the economics journalist Ann Crittenden (in her book The Price of Motherhood) and others have analyzed. Let’s have less babble about how great it is that women have so many “choices,” and more hard-headed discussion of why so many women who want and need to work find themselves pushed out of their jobs when they have kids, and why so many women who take time out of the labor force to have a baby find themselves marginalized at work for the rest of their careers.

At the current rate of progress (which is a big assumption), it could take 50 years for women to earn 100 cents on the male dollar, 100 years for women to have equal representation in Congress, and whatever remains of human history for women to participate equally with men in the broad range of American life. That will never happen if the attitude of liberals toward gender inequality is to deplore it politely and suggest that women go off somewhere and discuss it among themselves.

From the Symposium

The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

The standard narrative, at this point, is this: Fourteen months ago, the progressive breast swelled with joy and hope at Barack Obama's ascent to power; today, much of that hope is lost, and the fault sits squarely on the shoulders...

next

Liberalism, Unwilling and Unable

By Brad Carson

10 MIN READ

See All

Read more about FeminismLiberalism

Katha Pollitt is a columnist at The Nation. Her most recent books are Virginity or Death!, Learning to Drive, and The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus