Sunday’s New York Times included Stephanie Coontz’s article, “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” and then, three days later, the Diane Rehm Show included a segment entitled, “Fifty Years After ‘The Feminine Mystique’”. Both have posed two questions: Where are we now? What happens next?
I’m reminded of a postcard I had pinned to the wall of my college dorm room: “I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy.” I love that postcard. Yes, I am a feminist. Here’s what that means to me: I believe men and women should have equal rights. See, that’s not so bad, is it? By the same definition, are you a feminist?
I spend a lot of time thinking about exactly where we stand, how far we’ve come, and where we should go next. Diane Rehm’s panelists shared some fascinating factoids. For example, in 1971, Richard Nixon vetoed a Senate bill that proposed the establishment of universal, affordable childcare because he believed it was a policy “too socialist” for our country. The panelists further suggested that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 are the only federal laws passed since the seventies that seek to address gender equality issues. Crazy, right?
My personal experience with “work-life balance” seems fairly typical of highly educated women who have high-earning partners. After graduating from college and graduate school, I enthusiastically placed myself on a career path. I had some reasonable amount of success. Then, after having two children, I realized that I could do it all – but at a significant cost. I spent many late nights crying over the beds of my sleeping kids. Given the amount of time and travel my work required of me, there simply wasn’t enough of me to meet the demands of my job and motherhood. Have you read I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson, or All Things at Once by Mika Brzezinski? In twenty years, when my daughter is twenty-three, I’ll tell her to read these two books if she wants to know why her parents’ generation was always talking about “work-life balance” in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Will the next generation, the Millenials, be different? I’ve spoken with a few lately, and results seem to vary. Some Millenial men and women appear to be taking advantage of policies like paternity leave, while others resolve the dilemma in the same way we Gen-Xers do – they just do their best to do it all at once. Diane Rehm’s panelists suggested, and I agree, that since the seventies, Americans seem to have “backed away from collective action” on gender equality issues. Men and women work through these issues personally, or privately, as individuals, rather than as part of larger social movement.
So now what happens? We keep talking, debating, and brainstorming. But talk is cheap. As Diane Rehm’s panelists suggested, what we really need is collective action on issues like these: affordable, universal childcare; universal preschool; enhanced paid family leave; longer school day and year; pay equality… It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Let’s show our sons and daughters that this generation didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.