Sunday, April 09, 2006

Is Feminism Still Relevant?

In a review in Commentary Magazine of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Dan Seligman analyzes two important claims made about Friedan and feminism: that The Feminine Mystique is one of the great books of our time and that it helped improve the lives of countless American women.

I'm not going to get involved in the debate whether the Friedan or feminism was a fundamental element in the societal changes that allowed women to become more active in the workforce (he claims that the increase in educated women during that era led to a huge increase of supply that would have increased demand accordingly even without feminism, a claim of which I'm skeptical). I'd rather focus on a point he makes at the end of his essay:

"Abortion, equal pay, equal opportunity in college sports, no “Men Wanted” ads in the papers, no mistletoe at office Christmas parties—virtually all the demands have been met... Once the economic victories had been won, and it became increasingly difficult to find new issues with broad-based appeal, a case could be made that the movement’s best bet was to settle for a niche market."

In other words feminism has ran its course for most American women. What are the biggest issues on the feminist agenda? The NOW website lists six top priority issues:

1) Abortion Rights/Reproductive Issues

The abortion battle is a long one, but one that would have died years ago if not for Roe. Majority of the country supports abortion in the first trimester and that doesn't look like it'll change. NOW's support for partial birth abortion and its opposition to any restrictions place it on the margins, even among American women.

2) Violence Against Women

The domestic abuse is a dead letter. Who supports domestic violence? Congress, close to a decade ago passed the Violence Against Women Act which was struck down on federalism grounds (it's been reauthorized). As far as I know, every state has laws against domestic violence. So the fight is merely about the extent of the punitive measures against abusers. So NOW is making a huge deal out of whether a prison sentence should be five years or ten years. That's a fundamental issue?

3) Constitutional Equality

This issue goes back to the days of the Equal Rights Amendment that never got enough states for ratification. The problem is that laws that discriminate against women as a class are not reviewed under the same scrutiny as laws discriminate on the basis of race or religion.

But there are obvious reasons for that: people who are discriminated against because of their race or religion are usually minorities. Women are not a minority, either in the population or among voters. So why do we need special constitutional protections for women?

4) Promoting Diversity/Ending Racism

This is a nice issue to fight for, but how it is a women's issue? Certainly women are affected by racism, but if NOW didn't exist, would groups like the NAACP be less effective?

5) Lesbian Rights

Also an important issue according to some, but not an issue that faces all women (or even the vast majority).

6) Economic Justice

NOW argues "[a] full-time working woman currently receives only 73 cents to every dollar received by a man."

I've never bought the wage gap argument for one simple reason: in our ever litigious society it's hard to fathom a group receiving a quarter less on each dollar for the same work as someone else solely on the basis of gender. There would be class actions all over the place, as such discrimination is clearly illegal under Title VI. Where are all the lawsuits? I'm not saying there aren't any, but we should be bombarded with suits all the time.

What the statistic probably means is that in the aggregate a full time working woman currently receives only 73 cents to every dollar received by a man. And of course there are many possible explanations for that that have nothing to do with latent discrimination: women, in general, being less educated 20 years ago means less women in high ranking and therefore high paying positions, women leaving the workforce for years to care for their children and coming back with less experience than their male counterparts, women taking less arduous, and therefore lower paying, jobs in order to care for their children, etc.

I could understand wage disparities being an issue if one feels men and women should equally share the domestic burdens (personally I see many situations where they should). But NOW completely blows it out of proportion.

So of the six issues, only one really affects the average woman and really matters. And that explains why feminism is in a decline. As Seligman accurately points out:

"Nobody today cares much what NOW says or does. It could not conceivably produce 100,000 women to march down New York’s Fifth Avenue, as it did in its glory days in the early 1970’s. Its flagship magazine, Ms., which once had a circulation of 300,000, still exists as a quarterly, but you will have trouble finding it on newsstands."

When people like Martha Burke spend their time protesting a private high-class golf course's decision to exclude female members, it's tantamount to admitting they have nothing better to fight for.

Note: I understand this post is simplistic, and I am conflating all types of feminism into one (aptly called) radical feminism. But that's the type of feminism that is in the public eye most often, so I'm focusing on it.

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