Practical Feminism: A Review of Fox-Genovese’s Reevaluation of Feminism

For the vast majority of men, the basic pattern of life has not changed in 3,000 years. As young boys, males play, go to school; later, they get jobs, get married, raise families. Life is now more competitive than it used to be, and the rhythm of life accelerated as students learn computer science and foreign languages in pre-school; but, for men, the pattern of life has not seriously changed.

For women, though, the basic pattern has changed. Moreover, this change is very recent. Over the last 30 years, women have seen the number of choices before them multiply dramatically. Career opportunities beckon; marriage and motherhood are now just options.

Yet absolute freedom has its limits, even if the law guarantees it. Those women who plan it perfectly and \”have it all\” – husband, children, interesting career and rewarding self-fulfillment – still find themselves exhausted by the end of the day. One can have it all, but there is just not enough time in the day to do it all. Only that is not how it was described in the feminist brochure. Something has to give. The current situation is untenable – even dangerous – for women. Women have lost the protections of a chivalrous society. Our culture is not kind to women – simply observe the everyday discourtesies that women suffer at the train station or the grocery store, as a gender-neutral culture forces them to lug those heavy bags around. They can be dumped at a minute’s notice by husbands who want to trade them in for \”trophy wives.\” They have earned the right to work in a man’s world, but all that means is that women now have the same right as men to follow rules and get yelled at by the boss.

True, many more women are CEOs of major companies than before. But as one looks at the plight of the average American woman, one wonders if Nietzsche’s cruel defense of aristocracy is not applicable here. The great branches of a tree soar ever upward, he said, but to do so, the roots must sink deeper and deeper into the mud. What hath feminism wrought?

This is what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese tries to answer in her new book, Feminism is Not the Story of My Life.1 Easy to read and filled with examples of real-life predicaments, this history professor at Emory University has not written a weighty tome so much as she has captured the truth of everyday life as many American women experience it. Two chapters are of particular interest, the first and last.

The first, titled \”What’s Feminism Got to Do with It,\” tries to build a working definition of feminism from among Fox-Genovese’s interviews with women. It is hard to do. This is part of the movement’s problem, why the feminist label has such negative connotations. Seventy years ago, feminism was associated with women’s suffrage – a cause easy to grasp and one that fitted naturally within the tradition of American democracy. Thirty years ago, feminism was associated with equal pay for equal work and women’s equal access to credit – again, readily defensible notions, squarely within the American credo of fairness to all.

But what does feminism mean now? In the world of feminist organizations like NOW2 or the Fund for a Feminist Majority, it means a gender-neutral society, quotas for women, an end to the (patriarchal, male-dominated) family and a world where men are irrelevant. These aims have proven elusive, in part because they have no basis in America’s political or cultural tradition. More importantly, as Fox-Genovese notes, the ideas themselves are irrelevant to women when they go about their daily doings. They are too abstract.

Fox-Genovese interviews several women for the book, many who work and provide the second paycheck for middle-class families struggling to stay afloat. Most of these interviewees see feminism as a luxury, a plaything for affluent, white, liberal women. Their concerns are not partial-birth abortion or sexual harassment but, rather, day care, public education, flexible work hours and health insurance.

This is what makes feminism irrelevant to their lives. But irrelevance is a neutral valuation; it is not enough to explain the decline of feminism. What makes feminism downright unpopular is the movement’s obsession with gender-neutrality. The feminist movement tries to factor out those characteristics unique to women in the effort to make men and women more equal. Hence, even motherhood is looked upon as a kind of handicap, since it interferes with the ability of women to compete effectively with men in the marketplace. (It forces them onto the \”mommy track.\”) But as Horace once said, try to drive nature out with a pitchfork and she will always return. Women, because of their biology, are different from men. No escaping it. Moreover, women are attracted to men, just as men are attracted to women. And most women do not mind these differences (for many, they are part of the attraction). Hence, feminism is not just irrelevant to these women but altogether strange.

Nevertheless, before conservatives get too cocky, they should read Fox-Genovese’s last chapter, \”Women in the Culture War.\” Fox-Genovese tells conservatives to wake up. It is time to put away the dreams of women returning to traditional roles. Women will not return. They cannot return. The economy will not let them. So rather than bemoaning the loss of paradise, conservatives should start getting more involved in the practical problems women face everyday. That means flexible day-care arrangements, flexible work hours and family-friendly tax policies.

Fox-Genovese’s last chapter is filled with interesting ideas. But its real point is to reorient conservatism. This should not be difficult: Many policies that would make a difference in the lives of working women involve deregulation, which is an easy one for conservatives. There is a tremendous political opportunity for conservatives now. The established women’s organizations articulate a brand of feminism that is so unpopular that many women refuse to call themselves feminists at all. It is time for conservatives to rush in, do some good, and hijack the term.

Dr. Dworkin is the chairman of the Calvert Institute’s board of trustees.

End Notes

[Top] 1.Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life: How Today’s Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1996), 260 pp.

[Top] 2.I.e., National Organization for Women.

Posted in: Book Review, Culture Wars