The feminist revolution of the 196os promised to liberate women from the overbearing protection of society, the constraints of traditional morality, the oppression of men, the burden of children. It has largely accomplished its mission in one of the most radical and rapid restructurings of society in history. But at what cost? Women are now free to work the same long hours, to do the same heavy lifting, in the same dangerous jobs as men. Women are free to have sex with as many partners as they choose with as little commitment as possible. They need not be vexed by fathers who want to safeguard their virtue, or brothers who would defend it. They are free not to marry at all; or leave their husbands (or, more often, be left by them) with virtually no legal hassle or consequent social stigma. They are free not to bear children or, in a perverse corollary, to bear them outside marriage.
None of this sounds much like real freedom, however. Indeed, in the aftermath of the social revolution of the 1960s, women seem more burdened and vulnerable than free. The family, which historically has been the primary social unit that both protected women and gave them unique status, is in decline. An estimated 40 percent of married women in their 30s and 40s will divorce, and fewer women, especially black women, are marrying in the first place. The number of families headed by single women now stands at 12 percent overall and 46 percent among blacks. Those women who do marry have seen their role in the family redefined. A shrinking number, for example, find the financial security and emotional support to stay at home to raise their children. A large majority—68 percent—of women with children under 18 now work outside the home, including 60 percent of married women with children under six. In 1960, fewer than 20 percent of married women with pre-school aged children worked. Although feminists point to this dramatic movement of mothers into the work force as the crowning achievement of women’s liberation, in fact it has exacted a substantial, if still undetermined, toll both on individual women and society. A majority of working mothers of young children, in fact, routinely tell pollsters that they would like either not to work at all or to work part-time while their children are young. But most feel they cannot make those choices.
Conventional wisdom suggests that declining real wages make two incomes necessary to support a middle-class lifestyle for most young couples, but part of the problem may be the constantly expanding definition of what constitutes a middle-class life. People believe they need more than they did in the past: bigger houses with more bedrooms, bathrooms, and amenities, including central air conditioning, microwave ovens, VCRs, color televisions; more and better-equipped cars; frequent lunches and dinners out. What were once defined as luxuries are now thought to be necessities. But economics aren’t the only thing pressuring women to work outside the home. The social expectation that women will work—even after they marry and have children—is as great today as it once was that they would remain home with their children.
I recently asked a group of approximately one hundred students at a Catholic college about their anticipations in this regard. Only a handful of young women said that they planned to stay at home full time while their children were young. What was more surprising was that none of the young men in the audience said they would prefer their future wives to stay at home after the birth of their children. Indeed, my discussions with students suggest that most young men, especially those who are best educated, feel that it would be an unfair burden for them to assume the sole financial responsibility for their families; most seek to marry young women who will be, ideally, equal financial partners.
Women no longer have any special status in this society. They are not only men’s equals, they are expected to be their clones. At every turn, we insist on the essential sameness of men and women. We persist in the belief that men and women should fulfill identical roles in society. We demand not only equal pay for equal work for women, but also that women can and should perform the same jobs as men, including most recently—and outrageously—serving in combat. We deny that being a mother is different from being a father in any but a strictly biological sense, and we increasingly prefer to use the androgynous term “parent” to describe both roles. The very idea that sex roles are anything more than a social construct is anathema.
Yet, there are some signs that even the feminist movement is having second thoughts about the consequences of their revolution. Much of the recent spate of feminist legislation, for example, aims at ameliorating the effects of the social upheaval they have wrought over the last three decades. Parental leave laws will allow women to stay at home to care for newborn or sick children or other family members without risking their jobs. Vigorous enforcement of child support laws will mitigate the effect of divorce and abandonment, forcing men to remain financially—if not emotionally—tied to their children. And sexual harassment and date rape laws will attempt to keep men’s behavior in check, while preserving women’s right to exercise their own newly acquired sexual freedom. Ironically, the same feminists who wiped out the protective legislation of an earlier era now seek to impose a whole new generation of protective laws.
The feminists’ solution to female vulnerability is to replace the role that men have traditionally played in women’s lives—that of provider and protector—with government. It is as if the feminists are quietly conceding that they have failed in masculinizing women to be totally self-sufficient. But the real problem is that the feminist revolution has emasculated all too many men, who no longer wish to care for or protect women or their children. The result is not a kinder, gentler, feminized world, but rather one which reflects a pre-civilized and amoral state of nature, where the strong prey upon the weak, and women and their children are left out in the cold.