A British mother is entitled to paid leave from work for prenatal care, six weeks of maternity leave with 90 percent of her wage, and the right to take up to 29 weeks of maternity leave and return to a comparable job. Swedish parents are entitled to nine months' leave with 90 percent wage replacement, job seniority protection, a guarantee that they can return to the same or similar job and their fringe benefits while on leave.
By sharp contrast, most American working women (unless they work for large corporations with good benefit packages) have no statutory entitlement to job protection, maternity leave or health coverage for themselves and their newborns, and many new mothers routinely have to choose between leaving newborns with caretakers or losing their jobs. "No other advanced industrial country forces this choice on its female citizens," writes Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the economist who has written "A Lesser Life -- the Myth of Women's Liberation in America."
The same economic and social pressures that pushed American women into the work force in the 1960s and '70s also pushed Swedish, Italian, French and British women into the labor force, but with profoundly different results -- in part because of a different emphasis by their women's movements. "Most American feminists have stressed the importance of acquiring an equal set of legal rights and of achieving control over one's body," writes Hewlett. "The assumption has been that once women possess the same rights as men and can choose not to have children, they achieve true equality of opportunity and are able to compete for jobs, income and power on the same terms as men.
"In Europe various groups of social feminists have conceived the problem of the female sex quite differently. For them, it is not women's lack of legal rights that constitute her main handicap, or even her lack of 'reproductive freedom.' Rather, it is her dual burden -- in the home and in the work force -- that leads to second-class status. The goal of the social feminists has therefore become one of lightening this burden by instituting family support systems that make this dual role less oppressive for women. Their conviction is that because women are wives and mothers as well as workers and citizens, they need special compensatory policies if they are to accomplish as much as men in the world beyond the home."
Thus, she writes, the social feminists in various European countries applied pressure within trade unions and political parties during the past two decades to broaden and enhance the various family support systems that would allow women to fulfill both responsibilities. Here, however, when a California receptionist who lost her job after taking maternity leave sued her employer, the National Organization for Women filed a brief against her position, saying it would discriminate against men.
"To ignore this biological difference, as many American feminists chose to do, is to commit a double folly," writes Hewlett. "In the first place, it ensures that most women will become second-class citizens in the work place. For without public support policies few women can cope with motherhood without hopelessly compromising their career goals. Secondly, society has to suffer . . . . If we fail to create decent conditions for the bearing of children and if we deprive those children of parental contact in the first few weeks of life, we will pay a huge price in the future . . . . Neglected children grow into problem-ridden, unproductive adults."
Hewlett is challenging some of the most basic assumptions of the modern women's movement, but she has history on her side. Women who fought so many years for suffrage expected it to make a dramatic difference in their lives. Instead, women for decades either didn't vote or voted the same way as their husbands and fathers -- and the right to vote did nothing materially to improve their lives. The Equal Rights Amendment, she points out, would do nothing to help women with child care. In fact, it might prevent governments from helping women reconcile their two roles.
Hewlett's arguments and her book are bound to be controversial. She has provided a framework for a women's movement that will address the most pressing daily concerns of working women's lives. Women are 53 percent of the population and now make up 44 percent of the work force; 90 percent of these workers will have children, and "most of them have no option but to try to hang on to their jobs during their childbearing years," she writes. This, indeed, is the central dilemma of modern women's lives and she has faced it head-on.