The bugle has sounded. The women's movement is supposedly in retreat -- stung by the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, rejected by traditional women as radical and scorned by younger women as senselessly militant. Married women want to take their husbands' names and reject the use of the word Ms. and in no way want to be characterized as feminists. Women are girls once again.
We are told these things by the news media. Recently, for instance, The New York Times Magazine became just the latest publication to report that especially among younger women the bloom is off feminism. It is only a matter of time now until the subject hits the covers of Newsweek and Time. A new countermovement will be born and then everyone will think they have heard the same trumpet -- faint as it is.
Whatever the truth of the reports, it is nevertheless remarkable how feminism gets treated like hula hoops for women -- just another fad. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. Like all durable isms, it is based on real needs -- mostly economic ones -- and not an interesting idea that a bunch of women in New York cooked up to launch a magazine.
What's supposed to be shocking about the alleged counterrevolution is that the faded-away feminists are not the followers of Phyllis Schlafly, but younger women -- beneficiaries of everything feminism has to offer. They are the ones who are reportedly rejecting feminism, finding it ideologically strident -- threatening both to themselves and to the men who mean so much to them. Some of these younger women say they simply prefer more traditional life styles. They want men to pay for dates, want to opt out of careers and raise kids -- want some of the things their mothers had.
But this is no defeat for feminism. After all, what these women are really saying is that now have the freedom to make those choices. This is a luxury their mothers did not have. When younger women either question or reject feminism, they are simply acknowledging what it has done for them. They can choose to have a career or not, work full time or part time, take their husband's last name or keep their own -- and, under the current law, choose to have an abortion or choose not to. These choices were simply unavailable until quite recently.
A good Marxist would have noticed by now that young women who are newly critical of feminism can often afford to put their money where their mouths are. Poor women can not do that. They don't work for ideological reasons, but because they have to -- because they are divorced or widowed or were poor in the first place. Go talk options to them.
But there is something else to say about these younger women -- they are young. In a country where the young tend to be liberal and the old conservative, it can be surprising to find situations where the process works the other way. But especially with women, nothing radicalizes as much as life itself. Unlike men, who tend to get more conservative as they get older, women tend to get more radical.
As Gloria Steinem points out, younger women have not had the universal radicalizing experiences of older women -- marriage, raising children, being in the work force and aging. In all of these, women often get the short end of the stick. Whether it's having primary responsibility for raising children, suffering job discrimination, finding marriage a trap or sadly comprehending that only men get "better" as they get older, nothing drives home the reasons for feminism like some gray hairs and the need for bifocals.
Much of the news media, still composed largely of men, has little understanding of this process. Nor do young women understand that the institutions they deal with--especially colleges--are the most liberal in society and the most willing to treat men and women alike.
But the foundations of feminism are rooted in life, especially economics. What will kill the movement is not the wholly understandable skepticism of younger women, but the eradication of the problems women face. When they fade, so, too, will the feminist movement. Until then, time alone will turn "girls" into "women."