The Third Stage—A Successful Career Woman Asks: Has Feminism Helped Me or Hurt Me?

Since the feminist movement began, one of its goals has been equality for women in the workplace, especially in the male-dominated professions. After some twenty years of very public clamor, can we judge whether the feminist agenda is good for working women?

Let me frame the discussion with some personal anecdotes. I am talking to a college physics professor, circa 1971, in whose course I am getting As. “Women don’t make good physicists because they can’t handle abstractions,” he intones. I just look at him, unable to apply this statement to women I already know, mathematicians, chemists, philosophers, poets, and waiting for some substantiating evidence. He turns red and stammers, “Of course, you are an exception.” “I am nothing of the kind,” I assure him.

Ten years later, I am an associate attorney in a Washington, D.C., law firm. A partner with whom I have been working on a client’s business affairs is ill and unable to go to a meeting in Europe with the client. He says he is going to send another attorney, a man, instead of me, even though the other attorney knows nothing about the client or the business. He says that because I am a woman I will not be respected by the others at the meeting. When he tells the client of his decision and the reason, she insists that I go, which I do. No problem.

This is a different kind of bias. The law partner does not actually claim that I am less capable, only that I am less credible based on his presumption of what others might think. Spoken, his bias proved harmless; unspoken but acted upon by sending the other attorney, it could have been quite damaging.

Every professional or career woman has her own set of such experiences which incline her to be sympathetic to the feminist agenda. Yet other experiences raise serious doubts. Another anecdote: Several years have passed and I am a federal government executive. Representatives of the local chapter of a women employees group come to talk to me about promoting women and setting aside certain positions for women. I tell them that all qualified women are welcome to compete for any open positions. This does not satisfy them; they tell me how difficult it is to get training and education while holding a job. They are definitely not inspired when I tell them that I went to law school at night while working full time and that many of their male colleagues are continuing their training and education. I offer to help improve training opportunities, work to provide on-site day care facilities, talk to women about professional careers, but they are not interested. I have flunked. They go away sad.

On that much I can agree with them: we should all be sad. No doubt the prejudices displayed by my physics professor and the law partner were intolerable, but if gender is irrelevant as a qualification for a job or profession, then the sword cuts both ways: gender is irrelevant both to withhold the job and to give it. There must be some middle ground where women can be free from the old bias without being patronized by a new one. The problem is not just how women are regarded by men. Of equal, or even greater, importance is how women regard themselves: what do they bring to a job and what do they expect to get out of it? How do they present themselves to the professional world? How do they value themselves? This, more than any clamor for “equality,” will finally determine how women are regarded in the workplace. We have more control over our own attitudes and behavior than we have over men’s, and we have little hope of influencing them if we are not willing to take the same risks and meet the same demands they face.

I believe in a genuine feminism which I distinguish from the radical feminism represented by such vocal and activist groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW). This genuine feminism is a grassroots phenomenon that began long before the first “Women’s Lib” marches of the early 1970s. It was a quiet revolution in the ’50s and ’60s when thousands of young women in high school decided for themselves, perhaps encouraged by their mothers, that academic achievement mattered, that they would prepare for and enter such fields as law, medicine, basic sciences, engineering, political science, and business. These are the women in the highly visible leadership positions today. They began their preparation and training a full generation ago to gain the kind of genuine competence needed for their much noted achievements of the 1980s. Their chief enemy today is not the bias of physics professors and law partners, although these had to be overcome along the way, but the sometimes quiet allegation of “tokenism.” Tokenism is only the pejorative of the euphemism “affirmative action,” and radical feminism created it.

Doing little to foster and encourage genuine competence among women, radical feminism continues to insist on preferential treatment, giving basis to the assumption that women who have achieved have not done so in full and open competition but in an atmosphere of condescension. Radical feminists cannot take credit for the natural ability and hard-won competence of millions of successful women; rather they need to persist in “opening doors” that are already open. Like albatrosses they attach themselves to successful women, insisting on their role in that success and their prescription for the success of others: equality achieved through affirmative action.

There are women who seem to think that being equal means to mimic men in all they do. I have never understood those good women of the Protestant persuasion who succeeded in having themselves ordained ministers and then, full of their new spirit, promptly strapped themselves into Roman collars. (Weren’t we warned about putting new wine into old wineskins?) They fail to celebrate that being a woman does make a difference, one that can be a great advantage. Whether by, nature or lingering cultural differentiation, women be perceived to be (and perhaps are) more attentive to detail, more sensitive to human relationships, less threatening, more accommodating.

These qualities can be caricatured as failure to grasp the big picture, softness and lack of tough discipline, passivity and lack of initiative. Indeed, the typically feminine virtues can easily deteriorate into the vices, just as the traditionally masculine virtues of directness and leadership can become domineering arrogance and destructive aggression. Let’s face it, whether by nature or nurture, neither men nor women have any monopoly on vice or virtue. But they do tend to have a complementarity that needs to be better understood and developed by both men and women. There must be a way of being a competent working woman, equal in opportunity and achievement, that does not simply require the abandonment of femininity for a stereotypical ersatz masculinity. That is not equality, it’s self-annihilation.

The feminist agenda, as promulgated by NOW and other radical activists, does not even address the issue of how to be equal without being identical. Instead it defines equality in economic terms that often ignore the different career and work patterns of men and women, the economic values of different jobs, and the qualifications required for them. The agenda includes, explicitly or by implication:

•Representation of women in most if not all job categories in proportion to their number in the general population.

•Comparable worth (using legal or bureaucratic mandates to set wages in jobs traditionally held by women equal to wages in jobs traditionally held by men; e.g., paying cafeteria workers the same as truckers).

•Special employer-provided benefits for childbirth or adoption, including leave with pay.

•Federal and state support for childcare.

•Eventually, an average income for all women equal to the average income for all men.

Does this agenda help working women? Does it tend to combat the old prejudices that women cannot do certain jobs? To the extent that it changes the attitudes which result in unreasonable gender-based discrimination, it helps. When the agenda becomes affirmative action, preferential hiring or promotion of women because they are women, then it only perversely perpetuates the prejudice that women can’t make it on their merits. The same is true of comparable worth, which is also profoundly insulting to both men and women because it would require that their talents and skills be rated by government bureaucrats or consultants who have no experience doing the jobs being rated. It would do nothing but exacerbate suspicions and create resentment as employers tried, or were suspected of trying, to hold down pay in jobs held mostly by men in order to minimize increases in jobs held by women.

The demands for legally mandated employee benefits for childbearing and adoption appear to be a refreshing shift from the original feminist creed, which was militantly against family and motherhood. They at least begin to recognize that society benefits from healthy families and that infants need much more attention from their mothers than a full-time job normally permits. But the extra employee benefits also could work to the disadvantage of working women, because they really say that the woman wants the employer to give more for less, to provide paid time off and even hold a job open for an extended period while the woman cares for her new child. The substantial cost to the employer of hiring and training a temporary replacement or to other employees who have to take up the slack is not considered. The proposed benefits make hiring men preferable to hiring women of childbearing age and reinforce the idea that women can’t compete in the workplace. There will be an unavoidable question in the mind of any prospective employer (which he will not dare ask out loud) regarding any young woman job applicant: will she end up costing me more than a man? This is a cruel burden to lay on both single women and the many women who must work to support their families.

The problem should not be dismissed as just a selfish question for a hardbitten businessman. It is a question of justice for all concerned. Someone has to pay the cost: the price of goods and services will increase, or the profit of those who invested in the business will decrease, or the other employees will have to increase their efforts and productivity, or the quality of the goods and services delivered to the customer will suffer.

Government sponsored childcare also appears to offer encouragement to families, but who can doubt that what will result will be a new industry stifled by regulation and shaped by political expediency and compromise? How much room will there be for the real needs of children and parents, how much insight and flexibility? The likely outcome will be analogous to our experience with welfare and education: when the state takes over childcare, gradually others, including even parents, will relinquish their sense of responsibility for it. This time it will be the taxpayers who will pick up the tab for parents’ choices.

But the real problem is more subtle than the practical difficulties of balancing the economic equation. It is that the generous maternity benefits and government childcare being proposed are a reaction to two shortcomings, one on the part of working parents and the other on the part of employers. Working parents need to recognize and accept the consequences of their own choices and not insist that others—employers, colleagues, or taxpayers—must fill in when they are stretched too thin. Employers need to work with their employees to devise innovative benefits packages and work schedules that recognize the demands of childcare. Many employers already offer a selection of benefits so that two income families do not have to pay for duplicate coverage. Why not let employees also choose and pay for maternity leave, sick child leave, and employer-sponsored childcare? A choice of work schedules can also go a long way toward easing the difficulties. Many full-time jobs can be done on flexible schedules or partly at home. Rather than working fulltime, what many women want is not equal pay for equal work but unequal pay for unequal work: part-time jobs.

These simple needs of many working mothers have been obscured by the drive of many women to have both families and full-time, often highpowered careers. These women are not usually working because of economic need and they are driven to try to escape not only the consequences of their choice but also the choice itself. They are the superwomen who are held up as models and ideals. But are they? Who really pays the price of having both parents absent all day? Who pays the price of the mother who works all day every day and still has a house to clean, meals to prepare, laundry to do? Is there any choice except to hire someone to do these things? If the family can afford it, fine; but the inevitable demand is now being made that these services should be paid for by someone else.

The incredible extreme to which the have-it-all superwomen will go was recently revealed in an article in the American Medical News, written by a woman physician, Dr. Susan Adelman. Dr. Adelman says women physicians need help with housework, cooking, and daycare for their children. She says she wants “a wife.” Evidently she has not been able to find one, so she is demanding that medical societies and hospitals provide women physicians with these services if they want to enjoy their membership and the patronage of their patients. One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

But most working mothers are not well-paid physicians. They are working because they have to. Any demand for special benefits for women without a concomitant adjustment in pay actually works to their disadvantage in the job market. The employer cares about whether the job is being done efficiently; society cares about whether the child is being nurtured in a healthy family; the prospect is that neither will be satisfied. It is certainly possible for a mother to have a work schedule which is arranged to suit the demands of both family and job, but that schedule will be devised on an individual basis with the cooperation of the employer and employee, it will probably be for something less than full-time work for full-time pay, and is not likely to benefit from legally mandated strictures.

The underlying assumption of the attempts to make employers or taxpayers resolve the conflicts between family and work is the same as for the other agenda items. It is another way of saying that femininity, as expressed by motherhood and family, is not valuable and woman must redeem themselves by doing what men traditionally do: work at paying jobs. The woman who wants a family is made to feel that she must also have a full-time job and that others must bend over backward so that she can wear herself out doing both. This is liberating? Can women be equal in the workplace? Even if the answer is yes, these items of the feminist agenda do not help.

The fifth item on the agenda, achieving equality of incomes for men and women, is really the paramount goal, the one the others are all designed to support. It is the point radical feminists always use both as a measure of their progress and the goad to further efforts. It thus reveals what feminists really think of women: their value is purely economic; they have graduated from being sexual objects to being economic assets, rather like mutual funds and real estate.

The demand for equal incomes sounds reasonable enough. All things being equal, a woman should be paid the same as a man doing the same job. But what the feminists want is statistical equality: women’s average income should be the same as men’s. It is now 68 percent of men’s. Are the causes of the income discrepancy simply unreasonable employment discrimination and women’s culturally-induced low ambitions? There is no doubt that historically that has been a large part of it, but will eradication of all prejudices result in equal average incomes? Never. The figures used by the radical feminists include part-time workers, women who have taken time out from their careers to raise children, and women whose husbands are well-paid so that they can opt for job satisfaction rather than higher salaries. They do not break out those younger women who are earning pay equal to that of their male colleagues of the same age and experience. It is misleading to say that the average earnings of women doctors or lawyers are less than those of men doctors or lawyers, without noting that the older and best paid members of both professions are predominantly men. This obscures the very real progress that is being made by women in the professions.

More fundamentally, why should women accept earning power as the primary measure of their worth, even in the workplace? If a woman wants to raise a family and decides that she cannot do that properly and work full time, why shouldn’t she either interrupt her employment or work part time? Why should feminists wring their hands because she is dragging down the average income of women?

A more general question applies to both men and women: what is important in a job: productive and satisfying work, flexibility to attend to family obligations, or maximum income? Of course it is nice to have all three, but insisting that income is what counts gives us lots of frustrated, unhappy people. This item of the feminist agenda doesn’t help anyone.

By denying the unique value of their femininity, women invite contempt at all levels, including on the job. In my experience, there are two kinds of women who cause resentment and disrespect in the workplace: the NOW-style feminist and the bimbo. The true feminist is neither. She recognizes and treasures all of her capabilities, especially the gift of nurturing life, and values her person far too much to allow herself to be reduced to a bank account. She also recognizes the need to make choices among all that she can do and accept responsibility for those choices.

If the radical feminist agenda doesn’t help, is there one that will? I think there is and it includes items like these:

•Freedom for women to pursue any job for which they can meet all reasonable qualifications and to which they are attracted, without being told that it is a job for either a man or a woman.

•Education of all young people in the profound commitment required by marriage and children and a return to the assumed permanency of marriage.

•Respect and encouragement for women who choose to take time out to be fulltime mothers and homemakers and legal protection for their economic wellbeing and that of their children through re-reform of divorce laws.

•Face facts: no young woman should consider herself ready for adult life unless she has acquired the skills, credentials, and experience necessary to support herself and even, if needed, her children.

Readers of Crisis will recognize that Catholic theology has a great deal to say about the role of women and the relationships between men and women, all of which leaves little use for NOW-style feminism. But that feminism has an appeal which can blind young women to the real value of their persons. Those who have accepted it must see it discredited on its own terms, because it both demeans women and cannot deliver what it promises. Then they can be led to a deeper understanding of the human and divine richness with which women and men have been graced.


  • Donna R. Fitzpatrick

    At the time this article was published, Donna R. Fitzpatrick was Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Renewable Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy.

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