Family and Work Issues — Deferred Yet Again

First it was the war on terrorism, now it’s the economy. What will it take to move into the modern age?

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Gloria Steinem, vital as ever at age 77, gave an interview recently to the Guardian newspaper in which she expressed frustration with the partial and stalled progress of the women’s movement in the much-compromised Obama era.

She spoke of the continued rollback of abortion rights, of course. But she used equal vehemence to decry the ways that women who do choose to have children are forced, in our country, to accept a landscape of starkly limited options in setting up their family lives, and are left to blame themselves if those “choices” prove unworkable.

“I think we need to get much angrier about childcare, about flexible working patterns,” she told reporter Rachel Cooke. “It’s alarming to me that women are still encouraged to blame themselves, No one can do it all. If I had $5 for every time we’ve tried to kill off superwoman, I’d be very rich.”

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Steinem’s words quickly brought to mind a passage I’d read just the night before in Meg Wolitzer’s 2008 novel, The Ten-Year Nap. In it, a feminist of Steinem’s generation sits in the New York living room of a contemporary stay-at-home mom and, with a small group of her movement peers around her, muses aloud about the difficulties of rousing righteous anger — or much of any feminist sentiment at all — in today’s women. “I follow every single story about injustices toward women,” she says, as the 60- and 70-somethings around her nod in sympathy. “But what with fundamentalist Islam and the threat of terrorism, it’s gotten even harder to get anyone to invest their energy in this. It’s as though there’s just so much political interest most people can sustain. It’s like that game Scissors, Paper, Stone. Terrorism is ‘Stone’ now, and feminism — along with everything else — is ‘Scissors.’ Terrorism wins.”

The Ten-Year Nap takes place in another greatly compromised time: the just-post-9/11 era, when fear hung heavily over all thoughts of the future. I remember well how laughable it seemed in that era to try to get people to pay political attention to the unfulfilled promises of the feminist movement: family-friendly workplaces, high-quality, affordable childcare. It wasn’t the right time then for talk of such trivial matters, the received opinion ran; we were at war.

Today, of course, the stone crushing all hope of change is the economy. After a brief period in which it looked like we might actually see progress on women’s and family issues — candidate Obama made such improvements a cornerstone of his 2008 presidential campaign — we’re in a very real period of retrenchment, with money and political will so tight that talk of beefing up childcare subsidies or expanding after school programs or pushing employers to offer men and women meaningful options for decently-compensated flexibility seems little less than ridiculous.

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And yet, this deprioritizing of women’s and family issues speaks not only of old remnants of sexism but of precisely the sort of short-sightedness and willful misapprehension of reality that got us into this economic mess in the first place. The costs to employers of providing workplace flexibility is probably much lower than those of perennially replacing and retraining employees who can’t bring their lives in line with rigid job expectations. And unsupported, poorly nurtured, ill-educated children become adults who can’t fully contribute to the future of our society.

We continue to make public policy as though we were still living at the time when Steinem shed her Playboy Bunny suit for the stylish, yet sturdy boots in which she made history: a time when most families had at their core a breadwinner dad and a homemaker mom and a degree of economic security and stability and faith in the future that have become highly elusive today. Women’s lives then were in transition; now they’ve changed, and there’s no going back. Finishing the work of the women’s movement means finally embracing modernity — meeting the challenges of the present realistically and with intelligently informed foresight.

“Your generation was supposed to take over. Both the ranting and the running of the world,” another of Wolitzer’s former consciousness-raisers says to her young, former lawyer host.

“If it’s not going to happen naturally,” another chimes in, “then they have to be pushed.”

It’s thoughts of our children that really should push us. After all, as my daughters always remember, when they settle conflicts through a few rounds of what in our house is called “Rock Paper Scissors,” paper wraps around rock. It’s the “soft” stuff that really trumps all the rest.