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From Cosmo Girls to Working Mothers
by Linda Rabieh

What are the proper goals of feminism? Should feminism seek to eliminate disparities between men and women, to celebrate moral sensibilities that seem strongest in women, or to do a little of both? The struggle for the soul of feminism has of late been dominated by American feminists such as Susan Faludi, Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and Naomi Wolf, but the Toronto writer Kate Fillion has just now entered the debate with a splash. Her provocatively expressed reflections in Lip Service, coupled with savvy marketing, have rocketed her to the top of Canadian best-seller lists.

Fillion argues that, fundamentally, women and men want the same things and that women can by nature play hardball just as well as men to get them. Arguments that suggest otherwise, particularly those that attribute to women a greater decency, only contribute to women's self-deception and ultimately to their misery. And this is especially true, she contends in her most widely reported claims, in the bedroom, for here old-fashioned guilt rooted in myths about the female need for romantic love prevents women from taking full responsibility for and enjoying their sexual freedom. The feminism that she champions is aggressive; it aims to put the sex back into sexual equality.

But if Fillion's brand of feminism serves the interests of Cosmo girls, does it have much relevance for other women? Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argues that it does not. Her engaging, thoughtful, and deeply compassionate book, "Feminism is Not the Story of My Life", takes a critical, but still sympathetic, look at the feminist movement in the U.S. Her observations, though, are of interest to Canadians as well as to Americans concerned with women's issues since feminism on both sides of the border is grappling with essentially the same set of problems. She begins with a question: why do so many women accept basic feminist goals-equal opportunity in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, zero tolerance for sexual harassment-and yet refuse to call themselves feminists? What is it about feminism, by which Fox-Genovese primarily means the "public `feminist' agenda" articulated by high-profile groups like the National Organization for Women (and, by extension, the Canadian National Action Committee for the Status of Women), that most women distrust?

Fillion's aggressive feminism seems to suggest that in so far as women hesitate to embrace the feminist label, it is because they are still attached to the myth of their moral superiority to men. While willing to take advantage of certain victories won by the feminist vanguard, they shy away from enlisting in the ranks for fear that to do so is to adopt the aggressive behaviour of men and therefore to renounce all pretense to superiority. Fox-Genovese's research suggests a very different explanation for the apparent gulf between self-confessed feminists and the majority of women: feminism has not convinced them that it offers "an adequate story of their lives". Whereas Fillion, by her own admission, focuses on young, white, middle-class, urban, and often single women, Fox-Genovese bases her conclusion on a much broader database, on interviews with many women from across the United States and from a wide variety of social, economic, and racial backgrounds. Equally applicable to Fillion is the criticism she levels at Roiphe and Wolf, who also worry that the freedom, especially the sexual freedom, for which feminism has been fighting is increasingly at risk: "they focus exclusively on the hopes and needs of young elite women like themselves without considering that their experience may be atypical." The story of women's lives that emerges from her book may be less sexy than the one Fillion tells. But since the story Fox-Genovese offers includes so many more women's lives, it deserves to be taken much more seriously by feminists than she argues it hitherto has been.

About what, then, is the story of most women's lives? Fox-Genovese finds that it is about the struggle of women "to fit their new gains at work and in the public world into some version of the story of marriage and family that they have inherited from their mothers." Now the language here may suggest that women are hamstrung by "inherited" stories about marriage and children-that they are victims of a false consciousness foisted upon them by history-but Fox-Genovese seems not to think that this is the case. (Her continued use of the story-telling metaphor, though, does make her argument vulnerable to critics who believe that, since convention is more important than nature in guiding human lives, women could lead very different lives if only they were told very different stories.) She attributes such great and wide power to certain stories that she seems clearly to think they speak to women's nature. She argues that "[m]arriage and motherhood retain a powerful hold on very different kinds of women's imaginations. We have modified the story here and there, but nothing has replaced it. `Nice' girls may now have sex before marriage without penalty, but most continue to hope that sooner or later they will marry." But while feminism has strongly supported women's participation in work and in the public world, she suggests, it has offered less support to their participation in families.

Feminism has largely ignored the importance of the family to most women, she argues, and this is one instance of a broader phenomenon she observes: what women actually want differs from "what feminists believe women should want." Many women now identify feminism-and not without reason, Fox-Genovese says-with a "radical social and economic agenda" that does not reflect their concerns. On the social front, she finds that women often see feminism as working for greater sexual freedom, but they worry that such freedom weakens the bonds necessary for strong families. Rather than "an increase in sexual permissiveness", most women favour working to strengthen marriage. Yet in the minds of many women, support for NOW means support for its president Patricia Ireland's "public celebration not only of bisexuality but of open marital infidelity" (the married Ms. Ireland has a female lover). Moreover, many women associate feminism with radical attacks on men with which they strongly disagree, and Fox-Genovese identifies feminist statements that justify this association. Perhaps because they are dissatisfied with the gains women have made, some feminists "have turned a worthy campaign for equity, justice, and common decency into an assault on all manifestations of masculinity." Yet most women simply do not see men as "The Enemy", for they generally "want to anchor their lives in marriage." Fox-Genovese even suggests that what Susan Faludi has called the "backlash" against feminism is driven not so much by men as by women who "see the struggle against men as actually an attack on their own femininity and sense of what it means to be a woman." And contrary to what Naomi Wolf has argued, most women do not see femininity as a "trap that distracts [them] from the pursuit of power and independence" but rather as something that they enjoy and even see as "a bond to other women". Not all women are from Venus, it seems; feminists, like men, hail from Mars.

Even in the economic arena, she argues, where feminism has traditionally found its greatest support, its focus is out of touch with the views of most women. Feminists "continue to stress discrimination" and "promote affirmative action" despite the fact that, because most women face greatly improved employment prospects, they do not see discrimination as the pervasive problem feminists insist that it is. While Fox-Genovese admits that women still face difficulties in the work force, most notably in obtaining top executive positions, she questions the feminist emphasis on discrimination in light of the vast strides women have made over the past several decades.

Fox-Genovese reserves her greatest criticism of feminism for the ways in which she thinks it has worsened the plight of poor women. While the "young and upscale" may benefit from the greater freedom and independence promoted by feminism, other women suffer. From the perspective of poor women in particular, what is most significant about sexual liberation and no-fault divorce laws is the increase not in women's freedom but in men's "freedom to desert the women they get pregnant." Poor women are not the only ones who are deserted, of course, but the consequences are more severe for them since abandonment "reinforces economic deprivation." Fox-Genovese uses moving excerpts from interviews with poor women to argue that, in so far as it has contributed to the destruction of already fragile communities, poor women believe that "feminism is a luxury they cannot afford."

But is the fact, if it is one, that feminism exacerbates the poverty of poor women the principal reason for them not to embrace it? To the degree that this is the case, it seems to follow that feminism is rather unproblematic. For in so far as feminism is really a luxury that only poor women cannot afford, it benefits other women, and the only further thing it need do is focus on alleviating the plight of poor women so that they can share in the feminist gains other women enjoy.

As I have already said, though, Fox-Genovese simply does not think that today's feminism really serves the needs of most women. The heart of her argument is that the main struggle facing women today is not that against sexism or poverty, important as these may be, but the struggle "between children and work." For many women, "paid work has become a way of life": "[m]arried or single, old or young, women of all races, ethnic groups, and classes are coming to see work as an important part of who they are. Work previously undertaken out of economic necessity has become central to identity." She finds that this is true even of women whose work is "far from glamorous." They, too, enjoy work as a way "to get out of the house, to interact with other adults, to earn money they can call their own." Yet most women still very much want to have children and to devote a great deal of energy to raising them. Now if balancing "the competing pulls" of work and children is the biggest problem facing most women, solving it should be the top feminist priority. Fox-Genovese suggests, however, that this cannot be the case as long as feminism misconceives how women generally feel about work. For feminists, she claims, have been "reluctant to acknowledge that the aspiring professionals for whom they primarily spoke were atypical. Rather, they took professional women as their model and assumed that women's working lives should resemble those of men." But for this to occur, women "must hold the same jobs and must hold them for the same amount of time" as men, and "this is not a scenario that easily includes motherhood." The question Fox-Genovese asks is whether what women want out of work, and out of life, is exactly what men want. In what are perhaps the most provocative parts of her book-above all because feminists typically resist raising the issue of sexual differences lest they thereby justify policies that "exclude women from desirable opportunities"-she argues that women's priorities generally differ from those of men.

Her research shows that women's attachment to their children typically makes their attachment to work weaker than that of men: "working mothers are much less likely than working fathers to see work as the most, or one of the most, important parts of their lives, and most would prefer jobs close to home with flexible hours... Half would prefer not to work at all while their children are young." Even "highly successful women frequently want to spend much more time with their young children than the sixty-hour weeks required by the corporate fast track will permit." Fox-Genovese acknowledges that "[f]eminists have frequently expressed sympathy" for women torn between work and family, but their interest in freeing women from what they view as "burdensome family responsibilities" reveals their continual failure to appreciate sufficiently the importance of family to women.

Feminists in her analysis seek full equality of the sexes, which they believe will arrive only when women and men lead the same way of life. The upshot is that feminists believe women will not be fully equal to men unless they equally share familial duties. While she doesn't deny the desirability of involving men more in domestic life, she argues that "[s]o long as women bear children, they will not be identical to men-and hence not equal to them." In a typical example of her straightforward common sense, she says that "for the foreseeable future, the care for young children will remain more of a woman's responsibility than a man's," and she favours "compassionate attention to the lives most women actually live" over "the feminist quest for an illusory equality."

Towards the end of her book, Fox-Genovese offers useful suggestions about what kinds of policies a "family-friendly" feminism might promote. If women's devotion to their children makes them economically worse off than men, social policy ought to ameliorate their condition, especially since children suffer the most from poverty. This, however, does not mean that she champions extensive government programs. While she maintains that at times "the failure of the private sector may well justify the existence, or even expansion, of publicly funded social service programs," she primarily advocates funding programs indirectly through tax breaks and incentives that encourage "people to work together within local communities to promote the values in which they believe." And she emphasizes the importance of encouraging tax laws to favour private arrangements for child care, on the ground that informal, small-scale day care approximates better than does the institutionalized variety the kind of care parents themselves give their children. But less important than the practical policies she recommends is the spirit that she argues ought to guide them. Above all, family-friendly policies must respect the "needs and sensibilities of women who work outside the home and of those who do not." If feminism promotes such policies, she thinks that it can truly provide "an adequate response to the problems and challenges that shape [women's] lives."

It is perhaps unfair to wish that Fox-Genovese, who discusses so much, had discussed something more. I would have liked, though, to see her consider the connection, about which I remain unclear, between the feminism that she argues captures the story of mothers and the feminism that Fillion argues captures at least the story of single, young women. Are different versions of feminism good for women at different stages of life? Or is there something inherently problematic about Fillion's brand of feminism, something that makes it unsatisfying even for the young and upscale?

Fox-Genovese argues that society and especially the family need the support of a minimal moral standard, but she is keenly aware of the difficulty of establishing any kind of public morality in pluralistic democracies. She argues that "reproduction has claims upon public morality that personal sexual behaviour may not" but that this public morality should "have no implications for how childless adults live." I wonder, however, whether this is unequivocally true, whether there is not a tension between the freedom that Cosmo girls enjoy and the morality upon which the family depends. Might not the former undermine the latter, thinning out the moral atmosphere that supports sexual fidelity? Even or precisely if this is true, however, articulating a feminism that speaks satisfactorily to both women's concern for independence and their concern for family seems an exceedingly difficult task, and we can be grateful to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese for helping to lay the foundation for this project by powerfully reminding feminism of the needs of mothers.


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