50 years after ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ women should look ahead
“Housewives.” “Homemakers.” They don’t look like four-letter words, do they?
But that’s what they became in the aftermath of the publication of Betty Friedan’s book about the “problem that has no name,” which gave a voice to the female yearning to be someone who was more than married to a house.
It’s been 50 years since the late Ms. Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique,” ignited a wave of bra-burning and contempt for men and domesticity. The women’s movement has ebbed and flowed over the decades, picking up steam from the civil rights movement and helping spawn the gay rights movement, only to be scorned by daughters who didn’t see the point of a feminist movement to help them gain rights they didn’t know they could lose.
Women, and men, too, have had to relearn the lesson over the past decade that those rights are continually threatened and that guarding them requires vigilance. While there may be some who think the right to choose what you can do with your body is inalienable, it isn’t. That choice is perpetually under assault from lawmakers, courts and people, women and men alike, with differing religious and moral views.
Reproductive rights aren’t the only battleground. We as a nation are drowning in policies that hurt women and families.
Economic issues are top of the list. Equal pay is still a dream. It’s hard to imagine that 50 years after the women’s movement began, we still live in a nation where women are paid on average 77 cents for every $1 earned by a man. African-American and Latino women earn far less. This is at a time when about 25 percent of families with children are headed by women. Those families are significantly poorer than families headed by men.
Americans should be ashamed that their country is the only one in the advanced industrialized world that does not offer paid parental leave. The United States is in the company of Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea in failing to offer such leave.
The average length of time for most paid maternity leave in other countries is about 19 weeks; 31 countries provide a year or more of paid leave. Those statistics came to light in research to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act, a 1993 federal law that requires employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons, including pregnancy.
Early childhood education is another way in which our country fails families. A global study last year of pre-primary education participation among 4-year-olds showed that 69 percent of kids that age in the United States are enrolled in pre-primary programs. The United States ranks 28th among 38 countries studied. At the top were France, the Netherlands, Spain and Mexico, where 95 percent of 4-year-olds were in pre-primary education programs.
A Pew Charitable Trusts report on this topic estimates the economic benefits of universally accessible early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds is at least $25,000 per child per year. The annual average cost is about $8,703 per child.
Politicians like to trot out triumphal stories about successful middle-class families, but the fact is those families are fewer and farther between than our country wants to admit.
Gone is the structure on which those fantasies are based — the two-parent home with a working dad and a stay-at-home mom is a thing of the past. Traditional models of balancing work and family commitments are sorely outdated. More than 70 percent of women with children younger than 18 are in the work force today.
The women’s movement in its 21st-century incarnation must be about the family. It doesn’t help the cause when women like Sheryl Sandberg, the 43-year-old chief operating officer of Facebook, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the 54-year-old Princeton University professor and first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, are bickering over whose view is better for the future of women.
Sandberg suggests that women can have it all if they marry men who help them and confront challenges that hold them back in their workplaces. Ms. Slaughter counters there is no realistic way for women to have perfect careers and families at the same time.
They should pull together and stop scattering their energy and focus in a million different directions.
That doesn’t work too well at home, and certainly won’t get women and families where they need to be in the world. And men, feel free to pitch in at any time. Your futures are at stake, too.