FEMINISM, which once helped open windows of opportunity for women, has turned against itself. Many of its pioneers and most brilliant advocates are now protesting the very social developments they once cheered.
Betty Friedan's 1963 classic, "The Feminine Mystique," helped launch the feminist movement by identifying the family as an oppressive institution. Recently, in "The Second Stage," Friedan worries about "feminist denial of the importance of family, of women's own needs to give and get love and nurture."
In 1970, Germaine Greer wrote in "The Female Eunuch" that "if women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry." Instead, they should be "deliberately promiscuous" but not conceive babies. In 1984, Greer published "Sex and Destiny," a self-avowed "attack upon the ideology of sexual freedom," which laments family breakup and sex for sex's sake and says the export of contraceptive technology to the Third World is "evil."
Susan Brownmiller, whose "Against our Will" alerted feminists to the politics of sex and rape, now argues that the women's movement ignores "profound biological and psychological differences" between men and women. She remarks, "I don't see why men should have to step aside and wait for women to catch up after they've taken time off to have children. That's a very difficult truth for a lot of feminists."
Having helped to remedy social evils that existed, feminists are turning to social ills that they helped to cause.
The best example of such an issue is no-fault divorce. There are now easy, egalitarian divorce laws in 48 states, passed largely in response to pressure from the women's movement. But in a recent book, "The Divorce Revolution," Lenore Weitzman of Stanford University points out that men have benefited from no-fault divorce laws and women have been harmed. Her study of 3,000 cases shows that, as a result of these laws, divorced women and their children suffered an immediate 73 percent drop in their standard of living, while their ex-husbands enjoyed a 42 percent rise in theirs.
This happened partly because of married women's relative lack of job training resulting lesser earnings in the marketplace. A further reason is that because equal sharing of property under no-fault laws usually means the forced sale of the family home, which previously used to be awarded to the wife and children.
Judy Goldsmith, former president of the National Organization for Women, recommends a combination of tighter restrictions on divorce and more lucrative settlements for women. Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine, says the forced relocation of women and children after the family house is sold "poses enormous hardship" which the courts should not permit.
Feminists are becoming increasingly aware of the role of divorce and out-of-wedlock births in generating poverty for women in the United States. The feminization of poverty has come about precisely as sexual discrimination has decreased -- thanks to social and legal prohibition.
Divorced and unmarried women with children frequently do not marry; as a result, their children are raised in single-parent households. There are now 10 million female-headed households in the U.S.; 35 percent of them live below the poverty line. In 1959, only 25 percent of poor whites and 29 percent of poor blacks lived in female- headed households; in 1984, 42 percent of poor whites and 68 percent of poor blacks did. Few of these women were poor when they lived with their husbands or their parents.
The only feminist solution for female-headed households -- increased government aid to unwed mothers to ameliorate their condition -- was tried during the 1960s and 1970s; the evidence now shows that it may have added to the problem it was designed to solve.
For example, the number of female-headed black households has more than doubled since 1965, as increased welfare payments reduced women's incentives to stay with their husbands, as well as providing men with excuses to leave their wives and children. "What middle-class white feminists construed as oppressive, the family, has been the main source of economic stability of poor black women," comments Jean Elshtain, a feminist professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In fact, she says, "It's time to admit that the feminist vision was limited. We can't keep blaming everything on sexism and backlash."
A few feminists are even taking on the recent drive of the women's movement for comparable worth.
It arbitratrily overvalues desk jobs like secretarial work while undervaluing jobs with unpleasant working conditions and irregular hours, like truck driving, says Elshtain. Because of its emphasis on education and credentials, by most comparable worth criteria, "Bruce Springsteen would probably get minimum wage," says says Karen DeCrow, NOW president from 1974 to 1977. Susan Brownmiller says that comparable worth "makes a mockery out of work" by pretending it can be objectively assessed for monetary value.
In the social arena, "women who have lived through the sexual revolution have a lot of remorse," says Andrea Dworkin, founder of Women Against Pornography. "They got hurt badly. Sexual liberation only made life harder for women. They got used. They got abused. They got beaten. They got raped."
But many feminists cling to the rhetoric of sexual liberation, Dworkin says, because "they aren't really consistent advocates of women's rights. They are concerned with the values of liberalism first and the values of women second."
Feminist activist Rachel McNair says, "The sexual revolution has become an excuse for sexual exploitation. The idea of sex as totally recreational has turned women into objects of recreation, into playthings."
A similar epiphany came to Dierdre English, former executive editor of Mother Jones, who recently wrote an article wondering whether the feminists who heralded sexual liberation had in fact played into the hands of men. "Men have reaped more than their share of benefits from women's liberation." English wrote. "If a woman gets pregnant," for example, "the man who 20 years ago might have married her may today feel that he is gallant if he splits the cost of abortion."
Homosexuality is another issue where we find feminism repudiating ideas and events that it once hailed as liberating. Susan Brownmiller remarks that when feminists adopted the lesbian cause they didn't see the slippery slope. "We tried to make people proud of who they were," she says. "That wasn't so bad when the gays and lesbians felt a sense of self-worth. But then the sadomasochists came out of the closet and became proud of themselves."
Finally, feminism is at odds with itself when women who do not espouse the entire feminist agenda rise to top positions in business and government. While NOW is wedded to the Democratic Party, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Dole, Sandra Day O'Connor, Paula Hawkins, and Nancy Kassebaum are all Republicans. All of these women are commited to women's equality, and some explicitly identify themselves as feminists. But even as feminist groups declare that their mission is to help women rise to higher posts in politics, they ridicule and denounce conservative women who represent, in some sense, the greatest triumph of feminist aspirations.