Commentary Magazine


Women and Society

To the Editor:

I found Brigitte Berger’s article, “What Women Want” [March], tremendously interesting. I believe it is an accurate portrayal of what is happening to women.

Eleanor McGovern
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

In “What Women Want” Brigitte Berger reveals herself as deeply antagonistic to the women’s movement. What concerns me about her article, however, is not her opposition to feminism, a position she is entitled to have and express, but rather her unfair description of feminist literature and her view of the dissociation between private and public life in America. . . .

Having attempted to efface the dignity of the women’s movement by calling it, in her first sentence, the “woman question” (at least she does not say “problem”), Mrs. Berger tells us that feminist literature is guilty of “a sense of unreality [in] its description of the world” and a “lack of perspective” and is “curiously flat and lopsided,” incapable of entertaining disagreement, and “disturbingly ignorant of the most basic . . . biological and social data.”

What Mrs. Berger must mean is that the anger and bitterness expressed by thousands of women today—in both eloquent and excessive language—are not in themselves data and that we can afford to dismiss their view of reality as distorted, as if they and their outpourings were not per se a significant and observable social reality. . . .

When a sociologist of Mrs. Berger’s stature expresses herself in such terms, she makes it difficult for us to take the rest of what she has to say seriously, even though she has raised points that feminists themselves have been grappling with for years. . . .

What I find most disturbing about Mrs. Berger’s essay is her belief that women are banging on the doors of public life because they believe it to be rewarding. Certainly, many women do have that impression, and they are entitled to find the truth for themselves without being told by those already there that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be—go home and be grateful for the vacuum cleaner. However, the point that many feminists are making is that the world out there is bankrupt because it has cut itself off from women and from the life and feeling which is preserved in women, or which women have preserved. The “public sector” will not go away; women are saying, let us in because we have what is needed to make it better—those qualities men have praised us for to our faces, laughed at and denigrated behind our backs, and built a disturbed society without. Not permitted this, women can only turn to one another and to extremist positions—not because that is where they want to be necessarily, but because there usually comes a time when exclusion turns into exclusivity.

Mrs. Berger tells us that the source of modern alienation is not industrial progress but “the disruption of traditional cultural patterns, and especially . . . the weakening of the family.” Wrong. If we can reduce this complex issue to so simple a level without sounding ridiculous, the source of modern alienation is the fact that those traditional values (whatever she means by them; I assume she does not mean nationalism, military heroism, etc.) have not been permitted any significant function outside the home. Mrs. Berger writes that the family is “somewhat protected from the turbulence of modern society.” This is an unfortunate statement because those who buy the idea will perpetuate a system in which the public sector will continue to “protect” itself against all those values whose passing Mrs. Berger laments.

Esther F. Hyneman
Long Island University
Brooklyn, New York

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To the Editor:

Brigitte Berger’s article is not an answer to Sigmund Freud’s famous rhetorical question, but a convoluted argument in defense of “democratic capitalism” against a shadowy adversary called the “women’s-liberation movement.” In defending “democratic capitalism,” Mrs. Berger compares American feminist goals unfavorably with those of women of the Muslim world. But her summary of the position of women in Islamic countries is distorted by severe oversimplification. For example, she does not acknowledge that in several areas, especially that of inheritance laws, traditional Islamic women have had more rights than their sisters in Judaism and Christianity. She talks about the horrors of “male chauvinism” in the Islamic Middle East without acknowledging the many Muslim male feminists active in reforms for women. She uses Kuwait as an example of enlightened treatment of women in the Middle East. Yet Kuwait is one of only nine countries in the world that still does not allow women the most basic of human rights—the right to vote. As for the kibbutz, many scholars in recent years have questioned whether the Israeli kibbutzim have really accomplished their goal of liberating women or whether they have only professionalized housework. Kibbutz leaders acknowledge the fact that the “problem of women” is severe—when families leave a kibbutz it is usually because the adult woman is discontented with her laundry-kitchen role.

I would like to take issue with some of Mrs. Berger’s other assertions. . . .

There is no evidence that a mother and father who both work are less effective as parents than a family in which one parent stays home to take care of the children and the house.

Most women do not work to “find themselves,” as Mrs. Berger claims. The special U.S. News & World Report article (January 15, 1979) demonstrates that most women work because they must: married women work because inflation has eaten into family incomes; in addition, 19 per cent of all working women are single and self-supporting, and another 24 per cent are divorced, separated, or widowed and in varying degrees need to earn their own living. Since women are paid approximately 58.9 per cent of what a typical male worker earns and work mostly at the dullest routine jobs, it is hard to believe that most of them are seeking self-fulfillment in the “world of work” outside the home.

The amount of money thus far put into child-care centers by the U.S. government is so minuscule that it is laughable for Mrs. Berger to think that it could contribute to the expansion of “the power of the state.” The total sum in Mondale’s bill amounted to half the cost of one nuclear submarine. . . .

Even though the United States can be proud of the comparatively high status of our women, this does not mean that we have no important feminist issues left to be resolved. The U.S. News & World Report article summarized several of these issues: a widening gap between the wages of men and women; sexual harassment on the job; the steering of young women away from technical occupations into “feminist” fields; and the desperate need for child care for the woman “head of household.” These are only a few of the most pressing problems for women. It would be tragic if citizens of the United States ignored the basic national goal of seeking legal equality and opportunity within our democratic system because we appear to have made more progress toward these ideals than some other areas of the world.

Susan H. Gross
St. Louis Park, Minnesota

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To the Editor:

. . . Why does Brigitte Berger scold American women so mercilessly? Why does she denounce them for having aspirations that go beyond home and family? . . .

What Mrs. Berger fails to see is that women no longer agree to live chained to a shadowy half-life in the cave of the private sphere. What she chooses to ignore is that for more and more women, work pays for their own keep and for that of their children. Even for those who have providing, caring husbands, work buys a feeling of independence, the right to have a voice, to help make decisions. . . .

For the truth is that the family to which Mrs. Berger sends us back no longer has the resources to sustain women throughout life. The extended family is mobile and splintered; children in the nuclear family grow up and move away. By age forty-five many non-working women are left with nothing but time on their hands and a sense of frustration at not having prepared themselves for the future with greater foresight. . . .

All classes of women in America have benefited from the efforts of a vigorous minority to enhance women’s possibilities for growth and fulfillment. . . .

Kinneret Chiel
Woodbridge, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

In answer to Freud’s question—“What do women want; my God, what do they want?”—Brigitte Berger strikes a happy note of moderation.

The lack of perspective that Mrs. Berger finds in current writing on the “woman question” is not altogether due to inadequate information; it is also due to the fact that much of this writing is propaganda, a goad to action, and as such it employs such well-known propaganda devices as the big lie, the half-truth, the epithet, and the non sequitur. . . .

The counter-movement of men’s liberation indicates a rebellion against the male’s obligations and a yearning for lost nurturance and feminine support. Only two out of five men want children. If women are wise, therefore, they will temper their speed and set out to counter the counter-movement. . . .

Grace Rubin-Rabson
Los Angeles, California

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Brigitte Berger writes:

Rather than address the various responses individually, let me try to clarify those opinions that seem to have evoked the strongest reactions.

My brief essay was intended neither to rail against the concerns of the women’s movement nor to proclaim any particular revelations as to what women really want. I tried, rather, to point to the underlying social, political, and economic structures that have enabled our society to deviate from the pattern which has prevailed throughout most of human history and which still prevails today in large areas of the contemporary world. In this traditional pattern, all individuals, and women probably more so than anyone else, are locked into immutable positions. I argued that a pluralistic, democratic capitalist system is better equipped than any other system to liberate us from this common human pattern. I proposed that unless the women’s movement understands that its causes are closely interwined with a political-economic system of a particular kind, it may in the end destroy the very foundation that makes the existence of a liberation movement possible.

Some of the responses assume that I am antagonistic to the women’s movement. I hoped I had made it amply clear that I am deeply concerned with the position of women in modern society. However, my contention is that many of the issues brought forward by the women’s movement are secondary ones. My quarrel—if you want to call it that—with the women’s movement, then, is over its narrowness.

A great variety of causes—often contradictory and hostile to each other—are espoused by different women’s groups. It has become clear by now that liberation means different things to different people. To some it means being able to leave the household and find meaning in the world of work; to others, it means leaving the world of work for the advantages of the household. Some American women feel that liberation is being a soldier in the armed services or a quarterback on a football team. A great many women under Communism long to be with their children and to pursue interests other than work. The majority of Muslim women seem to find their liberation in service to their families and their religion. I would not wish to judge who is right and who is wrong in these matters. Any attempt to elevate one goal above another is arrogant, ethnocentric, or loaded with class biases. My emphatic position is that theoretically there is no higher or lower form of consciousness—practically, therefore, the issue seems to me to center around the institutionalization of structures that provide the widest variety of choice for all. And again, so far, the empirical evidence points clearly to the kind of pluralistic, democratic system that operates under a market economy. It is the kind of system that has developed in the West, especially in the United States.

One serious misunderstanding relates to my position on the participation of women in the labor force. Women have always worked. Today their work is split more and more between household and job. I agree with the findings reported in U.S. News & World Report, which Susan H. Gross cites, that for most women employment has become an economic necessity. This is not to deny that some women also truly enjoy their jobs, just as some women truly enjoy their families. In this sense, women are not different from men. What I am skeptical about, however, is whether work still suffices as the chief source of identity and meaning for either women or men.

Permit me to push my concerns a little further still. My article sought to open up areas that have been woefully ignored in the narrowly defined preoccupations of the women’s movement. There are many urgent questions still to be addressed that are of vital importance to women and society today. One such question, for instance, would have to address itself to the problem of whether a pluralistic, democratic system can survive without economic pluralism—that is to say, to what degree is freedom of choice for all individuals in all areas of life dependent upon a particular economic order.

An equally important question pertains to public policy. How can the freedom to choose how one wants to live, a freedom that is so central to the American experience, be maintained vis-à-vis the current trend toward centralization of functions and elimination of all ethnic, religious, and value differences? And yet another complex of issues turns around the uniqueness and particularity of women. Indeed, how can the special visions of women and their unique contributions to society be preserved and enhanced, as Esther F. Hyneman asks?

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