A FEARFUL FREEDOM

Women's Flight From Equality

By Wendy Kaminer

Addison-Wesley. 256 pp. $18.95

ON RARE occasions, an argument is so at odds with both old-fashioned conventional wisdom and more recently received opinion that it is bound to offend nearly everyone. Wendy Kaminer has produced such a work in this cogently reasoned, impassioned history of protectionist versus egalitarian feminism in the United States.

Kaminer, a lawyer and journalist who teaches writing at Tufts University, is an unabashed egalitarian feminist who observes that "we have managed to enter a postfeminist world without ever knowing a feminist one." She sees the current social climate as one in which many feminists, fearful of the backlash against the erosion of traditional "family values," have shifted their focus from equal opportunity for women to special protection based on presumed differences between the sexes.

The author refuses to fall into the trap of arguing about whether there are, as protectionists insist, a great many "natural" differences between women and men. "Natural sameness or difference is not generally relevant to the allocation of rights," she notes. "Ignorant and educated, responsible and irresponsible, well-and-ill-intentioned people all have the right to vote, regardless of how they use it or whether they use it at all."

The protectionist impulse in both 19th- and 20th-century American feminism has been based primarily on the unique, inarguable biological role of women as child-bearers and on the eminently arguable notion of female superiority in the role of nurturer.

In the late 19th century, as women entered the industrial labor force in unprecedented numbers, protectionist feminists joined forces with conservatives who wanted to bar women from "men's jobs." This alliance produced labor legislation restricting both the working hours and types of jobs that women could hold. Although many of these laws would have been progressive if applied to both sexes, their chief effect at the time was to segregate women in the economy's lowest-paying jobs.

Today, the protectionist feminist impulse has reasserted itself in calls for such seemingly disparate goals as restrictions on pornography, a revision of college scholarship standards for girls with lower math and science test scores than boys, and a "mommy track" for female professionals oriented toward motherhood rather than careers.

As Kaminer notes, protectionist feminism has frequently converged with protectionist anti-feminism on issues involving the alleged moral superiority of women. The suffragist movement, originally based on the premise that women were equal to and entitled to the same legal rights as men, succeeded in winning mainstream support only when it adopted the argument that women were the betters of men. Female voters were presented as supporters of traditional religious values and as advocates of repressive measures like Prohibition.

In similar fashion, 20th-century feminists have occasionally formed alliances with right-wing antifeminists in an effort to suppress pornography. While antifeminists view pornography as an evil that deprives "good" women of the protection they need as wives and mothers, feminist protectionists see pornography as an instigator of violence against all women -- as if, Kaminer observes, "sexism were a matter of men having too much freedom instead of women too little."

Such alliances are unnatural and tend to be short-lived, given the fact that anti-feminist protectionists are as likely to see obscenity in Our Bodies, Ourselves as in any issue of Hustler magazine.

What is not short-lived, though, is feminist defensiveness in the face of charges that the women's movement is anti-family and anti-motherhood. This defensiveness has a great deal to do with the current shift of feminist focus from traditional equal opportunity issues (like equal pay for comparable work and non-discrimination in employment), to such social protection issues as child day care and expanded maternity leave.

Kaminer does not denigrate the importance of these social issues, but she does believe they should be treated in a gender-free fashion that emphasizes the parental roles of both sexes. ONE of the author's most compelling arguments is that protectionism -- whether of the feminist or anti-feminist variety -- is a shield that enables social and economic institutions to evade their responsibilites to all workers.

Recent attempts by companies to bar women of child-bearing age from jobs that might pose a threat to the health of fetuses offer a powerful example of this evasive phenonmenon. Instead of spending money needed to protect workers of both sexes from industrial toxins, companies try to take the easy (and discriminatory) way out by banning women from workplaces deemed particularly hazardous to fetal life.

Such attempts are particularly unpalatable (although conservative judges tend to uphold them) in view of recent medical research indicating that industrial poisons damage male as well as female reproductive capacity. For inexplicable reasons, conservatives are not as concerned about defective sperm as about defective fetuses; this may be a scientifically illiterate twist on the traditional tendency to see conception as strictly a woman's business.

As the author suggests, there is an obvious non-discriminatory solution to the problem of how to protect fetuses in the workplace -- amendment of occupational safety standards to guard the reproductive health of both sexes.

In similar fashion, parental leave and on-site child care facilities for all workers offer a more equitable solution to the problems of working parents than a "mommy track" aimed only at working mothers.

However, egalitarian solutions tend to be more costly, complicated and disturbing to defenders of the status quo than protectionist policies based on traditional assumptions about immutable differences between the sexes.

Protectionism, in the author's opinion, has always reflected "an essentially tragic view of relations between the sexes . . . founded on a view of women as perennial victims." It is a testament to the persistent force of received opinion that this forthright defense of egalitarianism sounds nearly as iconoclastic today as it would have a century ago.

Susan Jacoby, a New York freelance writer, is the author of "Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge."