Since the late 1960s, feminists have very successfully waged war against the traditional family, in which husbands are the principal breadwinners and wives are primarily homemakers. This war’s immediate purpose has been to undermine the homemaker’s position within both her family and society in order to drive her into the work force. Its long-term goal is to create a society in which women behave as much like men as possible, devoting as much time and energy to the pursuit of a career as men do, so that women will eventually hold equal political and economic power with men. This [essay] examines feminism’s successful onslaught against the traditional family, considers the possible ramifications of that success, and defends a woman’s choice to be a homemaker.
Feminists have used a variety of methods to achieve their goal. They have promoted a sexual revolution that encouraged women to mimic male sexual promiscuity. They have supported the enactment of no-fault divorce laws that have undermined housewives’ social and economic security. And they obtained the application of affirmative action requirements to women as a class, gaining educational and job preferences for women and undermining the ability of men who are victimized by this discrimination to function as family breadwinners.
A crucial weapon in feminism’s arsenal has been the status degradation of the housewife’s role. From the journalistic attacks of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to Jessie Bernard’s sociological writings, all branches of feminism are united in the conviction that a woman can find identity and fulfillment only in a career. The housewife, feminists agree, was properly characterized by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan as a “parasite,” a being something less than human, living her life without using her adult capabilities or intelligence, and lacking any real purpose in devoting herself to children, husband, and home.
Operating on the twin assumptions that equality means sameness (that is, men and women cannot be equals unless they do the same things) and that most differences between the sexes are culturally imposed, contemporary feminism has undertaken its own cultural impositions. Revealing their totalitarian belief that they know best how others should live and their totalitarian willingness to force others to conform to their dogma, feminists have sought to modify our social institutions in order to create an androgynous society in which male and female roles are as identical as possible. The results of the feminist juggernaut now engulf us. By almost all indicia of well-being, the institution of the American family has become significantly less healthy than it was thirty years ago.
Certainly, feminism is not alone responsible for our families’ sufferings. As Charles Murray details in Losing Ground, 1 President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, for example, have often hurt families, particularly black families, and these programs were supported by a large constituency beyond the women’s movement. What distinguishes the women’s movement, however, is the fact that, despite the pro-family motives it sometimes ascribes to itself, it has actively sought the traditional family’s destruction. In its avowed aims and the programs it promotes, the movement has adopted Kate Millett’s goal, set forth in her Sexual Politics, in which she endorses Friedrich Engels’s conclusion that “the family, as that term is presently understood, must go”; “a kind fate,” she remarks, in “view of the institution’s history. 2 This goal has never changed: feminists view traditional nuclear families as inconsistent with feminism’s commitment to women’s independence and sexual freedom. 3
Emerging as a revitalized movement in the 1960s, feminism reflected women’s social discontent, which had arisen in response to the decline of the male breadwinner ethic and to the perception — heralded in Philip Wylie’s 1940s castigation of the evil “mom” 4 — that Western society does not value highly the roles of wife and mother. Women’s dissatisfactions, nevertheless, have often been aggravated rather than alleviated by the feminist reaction. To mitigate their discontent, feminists argued, women should pattern their lives after men’s, engaging in casual sexual intercourse on the same terms as sexually predatory males and making the same career commitments as men. In pursuit of these objectives, feminists have fought unceasingly for the ready availability of legal abortion and consistently derogated both motherhood and the worth of fulltime homemakers. Feminism’s sexual teachings have been less consistent, ranging from its early and enthusiastic embrace of the sexual revolution to a significant backlash against female sexual promiscuity, which has led some feminists to urge women to abandon heterosexual sexual intercourse altogether.
Contemporary feminism has been remarkably successful in bringing about the institutionalization in our society of the two beliefs underlying its offensive: denial of the social worth of traditional homemakers and rejection of traditional sexual morality. The consequences have been pernicious and enduring. General societal assent to these beliefs has profoundly distorted men’s perceptions of their relationships with and obligations to women, women’s perceptions of their own needs, and the way in which women make decisions about their lives.
Traditional Homemaking Devalued
The first prong of contemporary feminism’s offensive has been to convince society that a woman’s full-time commitment to cultivating her marriage and rearing her children is an unworthy endeavor. Women, assert feminists, should treat marriage and children as relatively independent appendages to their life of full-time involvement in the workplace. To live what feminists assure her is the only life worthy of respect, a woman must devote the vast bulk of her time and energy to market production, at the expense of marriage and children. Children, she is told, are better cared for by surrogates, and marriage, as these feminists perceive it, neither deserves nor requires much attention; indeed, the very idea of a woman’s “cultivating” her marriage seems ludicrous. Thus spurred on by the women’s movement, many women have sought to become male clones.
But some feminists have appeared to modify the feminist message; voices — supposedly of moderation — have argued that women really are different from men. In this they are surely right: there are fundamental differences between the average man and woman, and it is appropriate to take account of these differences when making decisions both in our individual lives and with respect to social issues. Yet the new feminist voices have not conceded that acknowledged differences between the sexes are grounds for reexamining women’s flight from home into workplace. Instead, these new voices have argued only that these differences require modification of the terms under which women undertake to reconstruct their lives in accordance with the blueprint designed by so-called early radicals. The edifice erected by radical feminism is to remain intact, subject only to some redecorating. The foundation of this edifice is still the destruction of the traditional family. Feminism has acquiesced in women’s desire to bear children (an activity some of the early radicals discouraged). But it continues steadfast in its assumption that, after some period of maternity leave, daily care of those children is properly the domain of institutions and paid employees. The yearnings manifested in women’s palpable desire for children should largely be sated, the new voices tell us, by the act of serving as a birth canal and then spending so-called quality time with the child before and after a full day’s work.
Any mother, in this view, may happily consign to surrogates most of the remaining aspects of her role, assured that doing so will impose no hardship or loss on either mother or child. To those women whose natures make them less suited to striving in the workplace than concentrating on husband, children, and home, this feminist diktat denies the happiness and contentment they could have found within the domestic arena. In the world formed by contemporary feminism, these women will have status and respect only if they force themselves to take up roles in the workplace they suspect are not most deserving of their attention. Relegated to the periphery of their lives are the home and personal relationships with husband and children that they sense merit their central concern.
Inherent in the feminist argument is an extraordinary contradiction. Feminists deny, on the one hand, that the dimension of female sexuality which engenders women’s yearning for children can also make it appropriate and satisfying for a woman to devote herself to domestic endeavors and provide her children’s full-time care. On the other hand, they plead the fact of sexual difference to justify campaigns to modify workplaces in order to correct the effects of male influence and alleged biases. Only after such modifications, claim feminists, can women’s nurturing attributes and other female qualities be adequately expressed in and truly influence the workplace. Manifestations of these female qualities, feminists argue, should and can occur in the workplace once it has been modified to blunt the substantial impact of male aggression and competitiveness and take account of women’s special requirements.
Having launched its movement claiming the right of women — right allegedly denied them previously — to enter the workplace on an equal basis with men, feminism then escalated its demands by arguing that female differences require numerous changes in the workplace. Women, in this view, are insufficiently feminine to find satisfaction in rearing their own children but too feminine to compete on an equal basis with men. Thus, having taken women out of their homes and settled them in the workplace, feminists have sought to reconstruct workplaces to create “feminist playpens” that are conducive to female qualities of sensitivity, caring, and empathy. Through this exercise in self-contradiction, contemporary feminism has endeavored to remove the woman from her home and role of providing daily care to her children — the quintessential place and activity for most effectively expressing her feminine, nurturing attributes.
The qualities that are the most likely to make women good mothers are thus redeployed away from their children and into workplaces that must be restructured to accommodate them. The irony is twofold. Children — the ones who could benefit most from the attentions of those mothers who do possess these womanly qualities — are deprived of those attentions and left only with the hope of finding adequate replacement for their loss. Moreover, the occupations in which these qualities are now to find expression either do not require them for optimal job performance (often they are not conducive to professional success) or were long ago recognized as women’s occupations — as in the field of nursing, for example — in which nurturing abilities do enhance job performance.
Traditional Sexual Morality Traduced
The second prong of contemporary feminism’s offensive has been to encourage women to ape male sexual patterns and engage in promiscuous sexual intercourse as freely as men. Initially, feminists were among the most dedicated supporters of the sexual revolution, viewing female participation in casual sexual activity as an unmistakable declaration of female equality with males. The women in our society who acted upon the teachings of feminist sexual revolutionaries have suffered greatly. They are victims of the highest abortion rate in the Western world. More than one in five Americans is now infected with a viral sexually transmitted disease which at best can be controlled but not cured and is often chronic. Sexually transmitted diseases, both viral and bacterial, disproportionately affect women because, showing fewer symptoms, they often go untreated for a longer time. These diseases also lead to pelvic infections that cause infertility in 100,000 to 150,000 women each year. 5
The sexual revolution feminists have promoted rests on an assumption that an act of sexual intercourse involves nothing but a pleasurable physical sensation, possessing no symbolic meaning and no moral dimension. This is an understanding of sexuality that bears more than a slight resemblance to sex as depicted in pornography: physical sexual acts without emotional involvement. In addition to the physical harm caused by increased sexual promiscuity, the denial that sexual intercourse has symbolic importance within a framework of moral accountability corrupts the nature of the sex act. Such denial necessarily makes sexual intercourse a trivial event, compromising the act’s ability to fulfill its most important function after procreation. This function is to bridge the gap between males and females who often seem separated by so many differences, both biological and emotional, that they feel scarcely capable of understanding or communicating with each other.
Because of the urgency of sexual desire, especially in the male, it is through sexual contact that men and women can most easily come together. Defining the nature of sexual intercourse in terms informed by its procreative potentialities makes the act a spiritually meaningful event of overwhelming importance. A sexual encounter so defined is imbued with the significance conferred by its connection with a promise of immortality through procreation, whether that connection is a present possibility, a remembrance of children already borne, or simply an acknowledgment of the reality and truth of the promise. Such a sex act can serve as the physical meeting ground on which, by accepting and affirming each other through their bodies’ physical unity, men and women can begin to construct an enduring emotional unity. The sexual encounter cannot perform its function when it is viewed as a trivial event of moral indifference with no purpose or meaning other than producing a physical sensation through the friction of bodily parts.
The feminist sexual perspective deprives the sex act of the spiritual meaningfulness that can make it the binding force upon which man and woman can construct a lasting marital relationship. The morally indifferent sexuality championed by the sexual revolution substitutes the sex without emotions that characterizes pornography for the sex of a committed, loving relationship that satisfies women’s longing for romance and connection. But this is not the only damage to relationships between men and women that follows from feminism’s determination to promote an androgynous society by convincing men and women that they are virtually fungible. Sexual equivalency, feminists believe, requires that women not only engage in casual sexual intercourse as freely as men, but also that women mimic male behavior by becoming equally assertive in initiating sexual encounters and in their activity throughout the encounter. With this sexual prescription, feminists mock the essence of conjugal sexuality that is at the foundation of traditional marriage.
Marriage as a Woman’s Career Discredited
Even academic feminists who are considered “moderates” endorse doctrines most inimical to the homemaker. Thus, Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, regarded as a moderate in Women’s Studies, tells us that marriage can no longer be a viable career for women. But if marriage cannot be a woman’s career, then, despite feminist avowals of favoring choice in this matter, homemaking cannot be a woman’s goal, and surrogate child-rearing must be her child’s destiny. Contrary to feminist claims, society’s barriers are not strung tightly to inhibit women’s career choices. Because of feminism’s very successful efforts, society encourages women to pursue careers, while stigmatizing and preventing their devotion to child-rearing and domesticity.
It was precisely upon the conclusion that marriage cannot be a viable career for women that Time magazine rested its Fall 1990 special issue on “Women: The Road Ahead,” a survey of contemporary women’s lives. While noting that the “cozy, limited roles of the past are still clearly remembered, sometimes fondly,” during the past thirty years “all that was orthodox has become negotiable.” One thing negotiated away has been the economic security of the homemaker, and Time advised young women that “the job of fulltime homemaker may be the riskiest profession to choose” because the advent of no-fault and equitable-distribution divorce laws” reflect, in the words of one judge, the fact that “[s]ociety no longer believes that a husband should support his wife.” 6
No-fault divorce laws did not, however, result from an edict of the gods or some force of nature, but from sustained political efforts, particularly by the feminist movement. As a cornerstone of their drive to make women exchange home for workplace, and thereby secure their independence from men, the availability of no-fault divorce (like the availability of abortion) was sacrosanct to the movement. Time shed crocodile tears for displaced homemakers, for it made clear that women must canter down the road ahead with the spur of no-fault divorce urging them into the workplace. Of all Time‘s recommendations for ameliorating women’s lot, divorce reform — the most crying need in our country today — was not among them. Whatever hardships may be endured by women who would resist a divorce, Time‘s allegiance, like that of most feminists, is clearly to the divorce-seekers who, it was pleased to note, will not be hindered in their pursuit of self-realization by the barriers to divorce that their own mothers had faced. 7
These barriers to divorce which had impeded their own parents, however, had usually benefited these young women by helping to preserve their parents’ marriage. A five-year study of children in divorcing families disclosed that “the overwhelming majority preferred the unhappy marriage to the divorce,” and many of them “despite the unhappiness of their parents, were in fact relatively happy and considered their situation neither better nor worse than that of other families around them.” 8 A follow-up study after ten years demonstrated that children experienced the trauma of their parents’ divorce as more serious and long-lasting than any researchers had anticipated. 9 Time so readily acquiesced in the disadvantaging of homemakers and the disruption of children’s lives because the feminist ideological parameters within which it operates have excluded marriage as a proper career choice. Removing the obstacles to making it a viable choice would, therefore, be an undesirable subversion of feminist goals.
That Time would have women trot forward on life’s journey constrained by the blinders of feminist ideology is evident from its failure to question any feminist notion, no matter how silly, or to explore solutions incompatible with the ideology’s script. One of the silliest notions Time left unexamined was that young women want “good careers, good marriages and two or three kids, and they don’t want the children to be raised by strangers.” The supposed realism of this expectation lay in the new woman’s attitude that “I don’t want to work 70 hours a week, but I want to be vice president, and you have to change.” But even if thirty hours were cut from that seventy-hour workweek, the new ‘woman would still be working the normal full-time week, her children would still be raised by surrogates, and the norm would continue to be the feminist version of child-rearing that Time itself described unflatteringly as “less a preoccupation than an improvisation.” 10
The illusion that a woman can achieve career success without sacrificing the daily personal care of her children — and except among the very wealthy, most of her leisure as well — went unquestioned by Time. It did note, however, the dissatisfaction expressed by Eastern European and Russian women who had experienced as a matter of government policy the same liberation from home and children that our feminists have undertaken to bestow upon Western women. In what Time described as “a curious reversal of Western feminism’s emphasis on careers for women,” the new female leaders of Eastern Europe would like “to reverse the communist diktat that all women have to work.” Women have “dreamed,” said the Polish Minister of Culture and Arts, “of reaching the point where we have the choice to stay home” that communism had taken away.” 11 But blinded by its feminist bias, Time could only find it “curious” that women would choose to stay at home; apparently beyond the pale of respectability was any argument that it would serve Western women’s interest to retain the choice that contemporary feminism — filling in the West the role of communism in the East — has sought to deny them.
Nor was its feminist bias shaken by the attitudes of Japanese women, most of whom, Time noted, reject “equality” with men, choosing to cease work after the birth of a first child and later resuming a part-time career or pursuing hobbies or community work. The picture painted was that of the 1950s American suburban housewife reviled by Betty Friedan, except that the American has enjoyed a higher standard of living (particularly a much larger home) than has the Japanese. In Japan, Time observed, being “a housewife is nothing to be ashamed of.” Dishonoring the housewife’s role was a goal, it might have added, that Japanese feminists can, in time, accomplish if they emulate their American counterparts.
Japanese wives have broad responsibilities, commented Time, because most husbands leave their salaries and children entirely in wives’ hands; freed from drudgery by modern appliances, housewives can “Pursue their interests in a carefree manner, while men have to worry about supporting their wives and children.” 12 Typically, a Japanese wife controls household finances, giving her husband a cash allowance, the size of which, apparently, dissatisfies one-half of the men. Acknowledging that Japanese wives take the leadership in most homes, one husband observed that “[t]hings go best when the husband is swimming in the palm of his wife’s hand.” A home is well-managed, said one wife, “if you make your men feel that they’re in control when they are in front of others, while in reality you’re in control.” 13 It seems like a good arrangement to me.
Instead of inquiring whether a similar carefree existence might appeal to some American women, Time looked forward to the day when marriage would no longer be a career for Japanese women, as their men took over household and child-rearing chores, enabling wives to join husbands in the workplace. It was noted, however, that a major impediment to this goal, which would have to be corrected, was the fact that Japanese day-care centers usually run for only eight hours a day. Thus, Time made clear that its overriding concern was simply promoting the presence of women in the work force. This presence is seen as a good per se, without any pro forma talk about the economic necessity of a second income and without any question raised as to whether it is in children’s interest to spend any amount of time — much less in excess of eight hours a day — in communal care.
Ironies Within Feminism
Feminist success in reshaping social attitudes has been facilitated by our media’s eagerness to adopt and propagate the feminist perspective and by feminism’s ability to piggyback on the black civil rights movement by portraying women as victims. In acquiring “minority” status, women (who are the sexual majority) secured preferential entitlement to educational and employment opportunities afforded to blacks and other minorities. Feminists have also promoted their goals through a large body of law developed under the rubric of “women’s rights,” much of it laid down by the United States Supreme Court in decisions invalidating distinctions on the basis of sex.
Contemporary feminism’s remarkable ability to enlist social institutions in its war on the traditional family has entailed two ironies, the first relating to the women spearheading the attack and the second to feminist reliance on the black civil rights movement to obtain preferential treatment for women. As detailed in The Sisterhood, 14 the most influential leaders of the women’s movement that was revived in the 1960s were Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Including the international movement, Simone de Beauvoir was a fifth. Of these five women, only Betty Friedan had both married and borne children. But she was unhappy with her marriage and life in the suburban home, which she compared to a “comfortable concentration camp” in which the housewife performs “endless, monotonous, unrewarding” work that “does not require adult capabilities” and causes “a slow death of mind and spirit.” She felt “like a freak, absolutely alone” and afraid to face her “real feelings about the husband and children you were presumably living for.” 15
Denying that contemporary women could “live through their bodies” and derive satisfaction from child-bearing as the “pinnacle of human achievement” that it was on Margaret Mead’s South Sea Islands, Friedan recommended the path of women who remained in the workplace by “juggling their pregnancies” and relying on nurses and housekeepers. Characterizing her marriage as one based not “on love but on dependent hate,” Friedan concluded that she could no longer continue “leading other women out of the wilderness while holding on to a marriage that destroyed my self-respect.” 16 And so the self-proclaimed Moses from the New York suburbs obtained her divorce.
While Betty Friedan had tasted a life devoted to marriage and motherhood and pronounced it foul, the remaining four women were unacquainted with the experience. Kate Millett and Simone de Beauvoir, both bisexuals, agreed that women were prevented from becoming free human beings by the myths revering maternity and the expectations that women should personally care for their children. Gloria Steinem declared that she deliberately chose childlessness because “I either gave birth to someone else” or “I gave birth to myself.” 17 Germaine Greer, who was the best known of the feminist sexual revolutionaries and wrote the very popular The Female Eunuch, was childless and argued that marriage was outmoded. Greer indicated a certain distaste for the female body, opining with respect to menstruation that women “would rather do without it.” 18 Later, as a revisionist and to the regret of other feminists, she attacked sexual permissiveness and lauded motherhood and fertility. Her preference for abstinence, anal intercourse, and coitus interruptus over other contraceptive methods, however, suggested a lingering distaste for the womb as well as for phallic potency. 19
Although she never married or shared living quarters with him, Simone de Beauvoir maintained a life-long liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre. Their relationship was based on sexual freedom for both, and as one commentator has described it, “her role was not unlike that of a eunuch in charge of a harem,” inspecting the women who wished to have affairs with Sartre and “disposing of past sexual partners of his who became troublesome in their continued affection for him. 20 Simone de Beauvoir’s life was a blueprint for the woman “liberated” through radical feminism: a bisexual 21 who was neither wife nor birth mother, but an aborted woman, a fact she disclosed in an advertisement by women who had obtained illegal abortions. 22
Reflecting the female’s hypergamous impulse, de Beauvoir allied herself with a man she considered her intellectual superior. Upon meeting Sartre as a university student, she recognized that he “had a deeper and wider knowledge of everything,” “a true superiority over me.” She recalled “the calm and yet almost frenzied passion with which he was preparing for the books he was going to write.” In comparison, her “frantic determination seemed weak and timid” and her “feverish obsessions,” “lukewarm.” Their early discussions, she said, were “the first time in my life that I had felt intellectually inferior to anyone else;” “Day after day, and all day long I set myself up against Sartre, and in our discussions I was simply not in his class;” “he soon demolished” my theories and in “the end I had to admit I was beaten.” 23 De Beauvoir’s evident excitement at being bested by this superior man is familiar to women (it was not entirely with regret that I realized my future husband might beat me in an argument). This excitement can serve women well. But while losing to a superior man may enhance a woman’s sexual as well as intellectual satisfaction, whatever intellectual pleasure a heterosexual man may derive from being bested by a superior woman, he is unlikely to find the experience sexually affirmative.
Eschewing marriage and childbirth, de Beauvoir undertook to live a life of the intellect on the basis of presumed equality with a man she believed to be superior and who achieved greater fame. When compared to “great men,” she said, the woman of achievement seems mediocre,” 24 a view echoing Beatrice Webb’s assertion that women lacked “that fullness of intellectual life which distinguishes the really able man.” 25 According to Paul Johnson, Sartre’s superiority was more apparent than real: de Beauvoir was “in a strictly academic sense, abler.” She almost beat Sartre for first in the philosophy degree, the examiners thinking her “the better philosopher.” Johnson thinks her “in many respects a finer” writer, her novel, Les Mandarins, being “far better than any of Sartre’s.” 26
It has been the norm for women to ally themselves with men who achieve greater market success than they. David M. Buss has established the biological basis for our attraction to the powerful, superior men best able to protect and care for us while we bear children. 27 Her affinity for a superior man well serves a woman who enjoys the many rewards afforded by marriage and child-bearing. But it must surely bring discontent to the woman who confines her life to seeking achievement in the workplace as the equal of that superior man. Not only was de Beauvoir unmarried and childless, but “there are few worse cases,” says Johnson, “of a man exploiting a woman”: she “became Sartre’s slave from almost their first meeting and remained such for all her adult life until he died;” yet, although she was his “mistress, surrogate wife, cook and manager, female bodyguard and nurse,” she never held “legal or financial status in his life.” Their sexual relationship, moreover, ended in the mid-1940s as she became a “sexually-retired, pseudo-wife,” while he pursued innumerable affairs with ever younger mistresses, one of whom, in his ultimate humiliation of de Beauvoir, he legally adopted so that she was his sole heir and literary executor. 28
In The Coming of Age, de Beauvoir attested to the bitterness of life’s fruits, describing old age as “life’s parody” and “a degradation or even a denial of what has been.” “What,” she repined, “is the point of having worked so hard if one finds that all is labour lost” and “if one no longer sets the least value upon what has been accomplished?” Those old people who do not “give up the struggle” but stubbornly persevere, continued her lament, “often become caricatures of themselves.” 29 Only with great difficulty, one must think, can it be otherwise for those who forgo the bearing of children that can fill our lives with the richest meaning, enabling us to greet old age with equanimity and the expectation that we too will “come proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.” 30 To trade the rewards of child-bearing for an aborted fetus and production of intellectual constructs — however great their merit — seems, to some of us, an unsatisfactory exchange.
Upon this exchange — in theory, if not fact — were grounded the lives of all, save one, who spearheaded the contemporary feminist movement. Their qualifications to speak for women as a class are rarely questioned, however, nor are they viewed simply as representing the interests of lesbians and other women who forgo marriage and reproduction. The one exception, Betty Friedan, had concluded that a life devoted largely to marital and maternal responsibilities could never be satisfying. It was these jaundiced abdicants from traditional femininity who led the assault on the traditional wife and mother, the kind of woman only one had ever been, and none would choose to be. Their aim was to make this woman’s domestic role untenable; their method was to revile, disdain, and calumniate her. Which leads us to the second irony of their offensive.
Feminism’s ability to piggyback upon the black civil rights movement has greatly facilitated women’s acquisition of educational, job, and other market preferences. Yet, the principal weapon feminists have employed to devalue the housewife’s status has been an attack based on stereotypical analysis, arrant bigotry, and undisguised contempt, all the antithesis of respect for the worth and integrity of each individual that was the wellspring of our civil rights movement. To see this clearly, one need only substitute the word “African-American,” “Jew,” or “Hispanic” for the word “housewife” in the statements of Betty Friedan and her sisters in the movement. These feminists (who surely thought themselves good people and committed to liberal values) would recoil from characterizing any other group in society in the degrading terms they have routinely applied to the housewife.
Feminism’s Falsification of Reality
Contemporary feminism is the creation of women who rejected the traditional family and traditional femininity, who were career-oriented, and who either rejected motherhood altogether, or believed it should play a very subordinate role in a woman’s life. The ideology they developed is based on misrepresentation of the facts — feminism’s falsification of reality. Feminist success has depended on convincing both men and women that a woman’s devotion to home and children is a sacrifice, a virtually worthless pursuit which affords no opportunity to use the energies and intelligence of even an average woman.
A crucial step towards inculcating this attitude has been to foster the belief that mothers previously stayed at home to rear their children only because they had no alternative. The allegation that women have been discriminatorily denied jobs has been, of course, the predicate for giving women job preferences within the legal framework of affirmative action remedies. But this allegation also has been essential to the task of convincing younger generations of women that, if older generations had been permitted to do so, they themselves would have pursued careers rather than staying at home to rear their children.
The major complaint of working mothers is usually not workplace discrimination in the ordinary sense, but their exhaustion, lack of leisure time, and the discrepancy between their own image of what being a good mother entails and the reality of their lives. One feminist response has been to demand alteration of workplace requirements to accommodate child-rearing responsibilities. In addition to these palliative measures, feminists have also undertaken to alter the traditional image of a good mother. They began by creating the myth that the decision of women of an earlier generation to decline participation in the workplace did not arise from their own vision of motherhood; rather, they stayed at home with their children only because they had been denied any opportunity to enter or succeed in the workplace. To feminists, who were certain they themselves would never willingly stay at home to rear children, this myth was believable and accorded with the view of sociologist Jessie Bernard that a woman who said she enjoyed being a homemaker had to be somewhat mentally disturbed.
Feminist myth-making meant that women of my generation who had willingly exchanged market production for child-rearing found ourselves represented as victims in analyses designed to document the denial of career opportunities to women. Workplace discrimination in fact played no part in the decisions many of us made to cease working outside the home. We were impelled to stay with our children by the strong emotional pull they exercised on us and because we thought our presence in the home was the single best guarantee of their well-being. A life caring for them at home, we often discovered, was good for us as well. We were confident, moreover, that society respected us and believed us to be engaged in a valuable activity — not acting as sacrificial victims — when we functioned as full-time homemakers.
It is this confidence that contemporary feminism has destroyed by successfully propagating the idea that homemakers’ activities are largely valueless, convincing younger generations of men and women that society disdains a woman’s domestic role. Yet feminism has been less successful in expunging women’s own image of a good mother and relieving working mothers of their ambivalence and feelings of guilt about leaving their children. While workplace modifications can help accommodate working mothers, they offer, at best, mild palliatives for those mothers who do yearn to be with their children and for those children who never find an adequate replacement for lost maternal care.
Workplace modifications can usually only compensate slightly for what is often a mother’s nearly insupportable burden of dual responsibility. Instituting these changes serves a very important function, nevertheless, by helping assuage mothers’ guilt. The message conveyed through these changes is that society is willing to impose the cost upon taxpayers and consumers because it believes a mother should work outside the home and that her presence at home would be of little value to either mother or child. Reinforcing this message is the fact that costs of workplace modifications benefiting working mothers will be disproportionately borne by one-income families which must pay for, while not sharing in, these benefits.
Like all special interest groups, feminists seek subsidies for themselves. Their economic interests and professional advancement have been greatly enhanced by claims of past societal discrimination against women, including the claim of being forced to assume a sacrificial role as homemaker.
My own experience differs sharply from the tales feminists tell. I was a practicing lawyer in the 1950s. From the time in junior high school when I decided to become a lawyer until I ceased working in order to raise a family, I always received unstinting encouragement and support. It was scarcely possible that someone from the working class, living on the edge of poverty with a divorced mother, could have succeeded otherwise. My entire college and law school educations were funded by scholarships and my employment. Teachers and counselors in high school and college energetically assisted in my efforts to secure these scholarships and other aid, without ever questioning the suitability of my aspirations for a woman. Not once in all the sessions where we discussed my educational options and planned how I would pay for them was this issue ever raised.
Contrary to the received opinion that society consistently discouraged women’s market activity, I found social acquaintances were extremely supportive, while employers and many colleagues generously encouraged my pursuit of a career. At the same time, those of my female friends in the 1950s who were traditional housewives little resembled the stereotype, so effectively popularized by Betty Friedan, of intellectually shallow, bored, underachieving child-wives. Nor do I believe the stereotype accurately applied to me when I, too, became a homemaker.
Attending law school and practicing law during a period when feminists would have us believe women were systematically discriminated against, I was treated as well as, and I sometimes thought even better than, the men with whom I was competing. But feminists tell a very different story. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, upon her nomination to the United States Supreme Court, reiterated the feminist mythology. Paying homage to her mother, Justice Ginsburg expressed the hope that she herself would be all her mother “would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve.” Reflected in these words are the feminist assumptions that women can “achieve” only through market production and that failure to achieve within the workplace cannot have been a willing choice. Cannot Justice Ginsburg conceive that her mother may not have wanted to sacrifice the time at home with her child that would have been required to gain what that child has achieved?
The nominee also attested to the discrimination she faced when, having graduated from Columbia University Law School (on the Law Review and tied for first in her class), “not a law firm in the entire city of New York bid for my employment as a lawyer.” It was reported — surely inaccurately — that she had to take a job as a legal secretary. 31 The phrasing of her remarkable statement raises the question whether, resume in hand, she had actually sought a job with every law firm in New York City or simply waited to receive “bids.”
When I graduated from the same law school several years before justice Ginsburg (also on the Law Review, but not first in my class) and began my job search, I received an offer from a major Wall Street law firm. As I recall, most of the fourteen women in my class sought and obtained legal positions, 32 although only two of us were on the Law Review and none was first in the class. It is true that the other woman on the Law Review (who was Jewish) did not share my good fortune of receiving an offer from any of the major Wall Street law firms, which did discriminate at that time against Jews and other ethnics. My future husband, for example, who graduated with me — also on the Law Review and with a virtually identical record but without the advantage of being a “Pennington” — was among the many men who could claim they were so discriminated against. Many Jewish graduates during that period, including women, took jobs with what were known as the midtown Jewish law firms, and it seems hardly possible that this avenue was foreclosed to a woman who had graduated first in her class. If her complaint is that she received no offers from major Wall Street firms, my own experience and that of my classmates would indicate the controlling variable was not her sex. It is, of course, more beneficial to plead sex, rather than ethnic, discrimination. Reparation for the latter still leaves her in competition with all the men who share her ethnicity.
Similarly, Barbara Aronstein Black, at the time Dean of Columbia Law School, discussed what it was like for her and other women to go to law school when they did not think they could get jobs or have a career: “We all knew that once we attempted to move into practice (but of course I never did), we would meet active discrimination. That was perfectly clear, and we were pretty angry about it.” 33 But we did not all know this; it was not perfectly clear. The then-Barbara Aronstein graduated from Columbia Law School the year after I did. I never was part of such discussions and never doubted that I could obtain a good legal job and pursue a career for as long as I wanted. Like most of my classmates, male and female, I set out with my resume and obtained a job. Those women, who, like Barbara Aronstein Black, were Jewish or members of other ethnic groups, did know — just as similarly situated men knew — that for them the job search would be harder and that they were unlikely to receive offers from major Wall Street law firms. The distinction then usually made — but certainly not always — was between white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants and ethnics, not between men and women. 34 Now that it has become fashionable to plead one’s victimization at every opportunity, what I find most interesting is that my classmates who were disadvantaged because of their ethnicity rarely did seem angry, but only determined to overcome whatever obstacles they faced.
Feminist Susan Brownmiller entered Cornell University as a freshman the year after I had finished my undergraduate work there and gone on to law school. In a letter to the Cornell Alumni News of April 1973, Brownmiller wrote that when she entered Cornell in 1952, “I had secret hopes of going to Law School. Two years later I abandoned that goal as a rather unseemly ambition for a woman.” She does not say who made her believe this ambition was unseemly — perhaps it was her family. I doubt it was any of the faculty or administrators with whom I dealt at Cornell. After my first year, I was given a job that enabled me to earn my room and board without working so many hours that I would be unable to maintain the grades required for my full-tuition scholarship; this job was given only to students whose ambition was thought serious and seemly. The Registrar at Cornell Law School took my aspirations very seriously. My only doubt about those aspirations was that it might be foolish for one as poor as I to continue her education. The Registrar always encouraged me to pursue my ambitions, and he helped me to choose the law schools where I should apply and then to decide between Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Cornell. That these law schools accepted me and offered me scholarships and other aid belies the claim that being a lawyer was considered unseemly for a woman.
My own career pursuits elicited a vastly more tolerant reaction four decades ago than is now evoked by a decision to devote oneself to being a full-time mother and housewife, a choice that, in recent years, has usually been depicted as a waste of time and talent. What were once considered valuable and respected activities — raising children, attending to a husband’s needs, and managing a household — the present society created by contemporary feminism views as benighted and beyond rational justification. No woman with a brain in her head, feminists have largely convinced society, could possibly be happy devoting herself to what they portray as worthless, even degrading, activities. No woman, as Justice Ginsburg implied, would willingly live a life of such limited achievement.
Feminists have inaccurately depicted women’s past lives both in home and workplace and falsely claimed that the intensive devotion of a woman at home cannot significantly benefit her marriage and children. But feminists are accurate when they deny that an women should be expected to become mothers. The denial seems superfluous, however, since it has rarely been asserted that motherhood must be every woman’s destiny. Monasteries and nunneries, for example, have been among the social institutions recognizing that reproduction is not expected of everyone. Clearly, some women are not suited to motherhood and some mothers prefer delegating child-rearing to others in order to pursue a career or other interests. The insidiousness of the women’s movement is that, while claiming — and being perceived by society — to speak for all women, it has represented only these two groups.
The Awakened Brunnhilde
The woman who wishes to rear her children within a traditional marriage, to whom contemporary feminism has been an implacable enemy, I call the “awakened Brunnhilde.” Best-known from Richard Wagner’s The Ring often Nibelung, Brunnhilde is a warrior maiden who was transformed by her love for the hero Siegfried. The Brunnhilde I seek to defend is a woman who finds that the satisfactions of full-time commitment to being a wife and mother outweigh the rewards of pursuing a career. This realization is part of what I call her awakened femininity.
But Brunnhilde’s choice, according to societal consensus, is a sacrifice. It is viewed as a sacrifice because society has acquiesced in feminism’s depiction of the homemaker’s role as worthless, boring, unrewarding, unfulfilling, and incapable of using a woman’s talents. Even those who support this choice as being in children’s best interest will speak of it as a sacrifice. For women like me, however, the sacrifice lies in precisely the opposite choice. It would have been a virtually unendurable sacrifice for me to have left my children with anyone (including my husband who, while possessing many virtues, was ill-suited to a mother’s role) in order to remain in the workplace.
I have been happy in every period of my adult life: attending college and law school, practicing law, staying at home to raise a family, and creating a new life once my family responsibilities had largely ended. Yet those many years I spent as a mother at home from the birth of my first child until the last left for college were the best, the ones I would be least willing to have forgone. Feminists recount endless tales of women’s oppression throughout the ages, but one of the greatest injustices to women is feminists’ own success in convincing society to treat as a sacrifice what for some women can be the most rewarding occupation of their lives.
By undermining the status and security of awakened Brunnhilde, contemporary feminism has inflicted undeserved injury upon many good women. And society itself has been weakened by its curtailing of women’s domestic role, which contributes substantially possibly more than any other single activity — to societal health and stability. All indicia of familial well-being demonstrate that our society was a significantly better place for families in the decade before the feminist revival — when the primary concerns of most mothers were their husbands, their children, and their home. Those of us who concluded that our marriages and families would thrive better if we devoted ourselves to home and children rather than to market production find our belief validated by studies showing that “when women can support themselves, there is a lesser degree of bonding between husband and wife and more relaxed sexual mores” and that “the higher the relative degree of power attributed by respondents to the male partner, the lower the rate of marital dissolution.” 35 These findings are consistent with the long-known fact that the women “with high incomes and/or graduate degrees have the highest divorce rate — a rate far higher than successful men.” 36
Our belief is also confirmed by several findings of a recently concluded long-term study of married couples: (1) husbands “who do more household tasks are less satisfied with the way the tasks are distributed,” and this division of tasks “is associated with declines in their love for their wives”; (2) the “more fathers in dual-earner marriages are involved with child care, the more negativity in the marriage,” and those fathers “who report more negative interaction tend to be less satisfied with the division of child care tasks and also tend to be less in love with their wives”; and (3) the extent to which husbands who are the sole bread-winners are involved in child care is unrelated to the amount of negativity toward their wives, and “the more single-earner fathers are in love with their wives, the more (rather than less) involved they are in child care and leisure activities alone with their children. 37
That mothers provide daily care for their children is in the interest of those men who would resist the feminist effort to refashion them into mother-substitutes, a role for which men are usually not well-suited. It is in the interest of those children who would have both a father and a mother, each filling different roles, and who would be spared the day care and surrogate mothering that can be a source of misery and are likely to be inferior to care at home from a competent and contented mother. And it is in the interest of those women who could find a motherhood that is unencumbered by marketplace commitments to be an incomparable joy.
Admittedly, life at home with their children cannot be a joy — either incomparable or ordinary — for women who regard that life as a sacrifice. It is not my purpose to convince these women otherwise. Such persuasion, my own experience has taught me, is more likely to spring from their own physical and emotional experience than from discussion. It is the experiences in her marital relationship, together with the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth — forces more subtle than intellectual reasoning — that will usually awaken a woman’s response to her children and then mold the dimensions of that response.
I use the term “awakened femininity” to describe Brunnhilde’s response to her sexual experiences and to her children. The purpose of the feminist endeavor was to discourage a response like Brunnhilde’s and encourage what I call women’s “spiritual virginity.” This is the term I use to describe a response that permits a woman to resist the emotional puff exerted by her child so that she can continue her life as a market producer after childbirth. At the same time as feminists promoted the sexual revolution that mocked women’s premarital sexual virginity and marital chastity, they vilified and disadvantaged those women who refused to adopt a feminist “spiritual virginity,” but chose, instead, to become homemakers and child-rearers.
Clearly, some women do experience full-time child-rearing as a joy, not a sacrifice, even when their initial decision to stay at home is prompted by the altruistic motive that this will be best for their children. That these women should find life at home to be enjoyable and rewarding is, I contend, at least reasonable. It is, therefore, scarcely debatable that society should support, not undermine, their lives at home. In the interests of such women, their families, and society, we should begin to restore the level playing field that the women’s movement has destroyed.
We must recognize that proposals with an initial appeal can often have detrimental effects on traditional families and must therefore be resisted by those who want to support such families. The proposed equal rights amendment, for example, would have forbidden denial of “equality of rights under the law . . . on account of sex.” It was intended to make sex distinctions identical to distinctions on the basis of race so that men and women — like blacks and whites — would have to be treated alike for all purposes. The amendment was intended, like many of the judicial decisions reached under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, to promote the feminist goal of an androgynous society. It would forbid, among other things, the existence of publicly run schools, classes, or athletic activities for one sex only and require drafting of women for military service, including combat. Feminists sought the amendment to signify that our nation endorsed the aim of the National Organization for Women to disfavor the traditional family with a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife. Like no-fault divorce laws, the amendment was designed to force women to abandon their traditional roles and refashion themselves after the feminist role models who promoted it.
Similarly, government-funded child care programs must inevitably harm traditional families. The greatest financial need in our society exists in households with children. It is not this financial need, however, which leads the women’s movement to endorse government-funded child care, but its firm belief that a woman’s proper place is in the work force, rather than in the home caring for her children. Financial hardships of families with children could be alleviated by increasing the federal income tax exemption for dependents or providing family allowances (through tax credits or some other method) that would benefit all families with children, including those in which the mother stays at home. Such reforms would lighten the financial burden of one-wage-earner families and permit some women to leave the work force.
But any outcome that enables women to exchange market activities for life at home is disfavored by the women’s movement. It consistently argues, instead, for government-funded institutional child care that would require expenditures rivaling social security and Medicare. The lure of subsidized child care, together with the resulting tax burden imposed on all families, would serve feminist goals by encouraging women to continue working and enticing women into the work force who prefer caring for their children at home. Through the legislation they seek, feminists demonstrate their preference for a government policy that disfavors families where the mother remains at home with her children by taxing these families in order to pay for child care, as well as other benefits, for families in which the mother works outside the home. Acting upon their belief that women should do market work rather than care for their children, feminists advocate discriminatory methods designed to deprive women of a real choice and push them into living in accordance with the feminist ideology.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes an old man in a pub who, having survived revolution and purges, is one of the “last links that now exist with the vanished world of capitalism.” When told by the barman that there are no pints of beer, the old man responds that “a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart, and there’s four quarts to the gallon,” to which the barman replies that he’d never heard of them: “liter and half liter — that’s all we serve.” 38 All that is now served by the reigning cultural elite are views like feminist Karen DeCrow’s: “[N]o man should allow himself to support his wife — no matter how much she favors the idea, no matter how many centuries this domestic pattern has existed, no matter how logical the economics of the arrangement may appear, no matter how good it makes him feel . . . .[I]t will diminish and destroy affection and respect . . . .[L]ove can flourish between adults only when everyone pays his or her own way.” 39
Contained within DeCrow’s brief statement is the entire feminist ideology. Andrea Dworkin had earlier stated it even more briefly, asserting that “to have what men have one must be what men are.” 40 This ideology dictates that marriage should not be an institution in which a man and a woman assume different, complementary roles, but a relationship like that of roommates, each fully and independently committed to market production — something resembling a homosexual relationship, yet between heterosexuals. DeCrow assumes that only a paycheck can fulfill a woman’s half of the marital bargain. To Brunnhilde, however, the arrangement DeCrow proposes, in which the woman (who for all purposes could just as well be another man) must pay her own way, has two fatal flaws: first, the arrangement requires child-rearing by surrogates; second, it discards the different, complementary roles that she believes are most likely to produce a stable marriage, enlivened by satisfying sexuality. DeCrow’s market-oriented roommates, who are little more than clones of each other, are the least likely to satisfy what Roger Scruton identified — Brunnhilde believes accurately — as the foundation of heterosexual sexual excitement: “the energy released when man and woman come together is proportional to the distance which divides them when they are apart.” 41
That this feminist ideology is now substantially institutionalized in our society is evidenced by the wide acceptance of Justice Ginsburg’s assumption that what can properly be considered achievement occurs only within the marketplace. A woman who seeks an alternative achievement within the domestic arena is dismissively described by Ginsburg — in words reflecting the same ideological assumptions as those of DeCrow and Dworkin — as being “reduced to dependency on a man.” 42 It is beyond the ken of these feminists to perceive the homemaker — in the way I have always viewed myself — not as being “reduced,” but as happily being spared the market work which would have required an unbearably constricted maternal role.
Feminism’s ideological victory has been a significant factor in producing the conditions cited by public school administrators when recommending full-day public school education for very young children because government institutions must take responsibility for children at ever younger ages. One administrator, for example, stated at a public hearing that children are no longer being reared by their families since the family “as we once knew it, has been destroyed.” The family, he said, “is gone” and so “we are going to have to do something else”: “You can forget the family part.” 43 But not all those mothers whose employment has contributed to creating this situation celebrate it as the social advance it is to feminists. Some of these mothers, instead, acknowledge a strong yearning to be at home with their children and guilt because of the choices they have made. 44
If this maternal yearning is ever to influence behavior, it must be powerful enough to overcome the feminist triumph that has entrenched within our society views of elite opinion-makers like those expressed by justice Ginsburg and Karen DeCrow. The traditional family that the women’s movement targeted as its enemy is, like the pints and quarts of Nineteen Eighty-Four, on its way to extinction. While not yet dead and gone, as the school administrator claimed, it will be unless those who believe in the value of this family structure attempt to reverse feminism’s victory. Such an attempt will not succeed until society begins again to respect and support — rather than disfavor, patronize, and demean — the woman who undertakes a traditional role and the man who makes it possible for her to do so.
Copyright © 1998 Reproduction Rights granted by E. Carolyn Graglia and Spence Publishing.