Commentary Magazine


Women's Lib

To the Editor:

Ruth R. Wisse’s article, “Living With Women’s Lib” [August], is provocative and powerful. But Mrs. Wisse’s argument betrays two serious flaws. First, she contends that Betty Friedan and later feminists, in “blaming” some strange conspiracy for middle-class women’s ennui, view women as victims of men, and therefore shortchange them. “Why should . . . the choices of women be attributed to something beyond themselves?” she asks. Later, however, she concludes that one of the effects of twenty or so years of the women’s movement is that today’s young women do, indeed, view themselves as victims of a male-dominated society—to the extent that young marrieds now talk of themselves in terms of power struggle, sometimes even in the jargon of Marxist-feminism. Does Mrs. Wisse believe that young women of her day could think for themselves, but young women of today cannot?

Second, Mrs. Wisse’s exploration of feminism through the story of her friend “Farla,” while immediate and compelling, is also disturbing. Farla is portrayed as being misguided about men: “She had a critical vigor that made her seem even smarter than she was. . . . She seemed, however, very stupid about boys.” By linking Farla’s problems in the sexual/romantic arena with her later embrace of feminist ideology, Mrs. Wisse is playing on that old, stale, and sad formula that says feminists are man-haters. Or—to take it a step farther—women’s political or social theories emanate from their sexual roles. Not that there aren’t Farlas out there—people whose beliefs somehow soothe their psychological conflicts—but surely it is a mistake to suggest that the women’s movement as a whole is an expression of mass female neurosis.

One of the several absurdities revolving around and spinning out of feminism is that it has so quickly lost its power as a mass movement and dissolved into a subject to be debated in the pages of intellectual magazines and on the podiums of academia. As Mrs. Wisse points out, feminism originally was, and continues to be, the province of the middle class. As such, it has provided seemingly boundless territory for disputes . . . that ultimately benefit few. I do not mean that these arguments should be stifled. Indeed, they have their place; yet by and large they are the fruitless and solipsistic debates of the privileged.

I have no quarrel with Mrs. Wisse’s outrage over the insidious suppression of certain so-called sexist words or ideas within the university. Freedom of thought—the freedom not to espouse “politically correct” views—must be defended in the university and in the world at large.

Finally, I want to point out that—feminism aside—the great majority of women (and men) work because they need the money. This being the case, it seems self-evident to me that women, on both ends of the economic spectrum, should have a fair shot at the workplace. Whether or not the women’s movement deserves credit for helping fight discrimination based on sex, deserves blame for upsetting the fragile balance of family life, or deserves mixed reviews, I frankly do not know. But I do know that in a meritocracy, a smart, hardworking female lawyer should be made partner before a not-so-smart and lazy male one, and an efficient and well-trained telephone repairman should be promoted over a sloppy and poorly-trained repairwoman. Perhaps when all the smoke has cleared on both “sides” of the “woman question,” everyone will agree that discrimination on the Right or on the Left can help no one other than a handful of clever writers and editors.

Jennifer Moses
McLean, Virginia

_____________

 

To the Editor:

When I was a young wife and first-time mother at eighteen, I used to feel sorry for my student husband, and then—two more children and a college degree later—wage-earner. What job could he possibly have, I wondered, which would be as important as my own? . . . And as my children got older, I was able to pursue a variety of activities and interests and, even without an au pair girl, juggle both domestic and extra-domestic pursuits happily and with a sense of exhilaration. . . .

During five years of consciousness-raising sessions, I was introduced to women who, like me, were excited about the issues which women’s lib raised. Yet even as we commiserated over the inequities in both our own and other women’s lives, we retained our own personal sense of the good fortune which allowed us such a forum and an equal appreciation of those who did not share our situation.

If, like Mrs. Wisse, a woman is lucky enough to marry and stay married to a man whom she loves and who loves and values her, if fortune gives her healthy children who do not demand a lifetime of care, if she is smart and aggressive and motivated and successful in her extra-domestic pursuits, if economic circumstances do not demand that she remain in a stultifying job—then, yes, even then, she is compelled to navigate a system which, to this day, pays women sixty cents to every dollar that men earn in the marketplace, applies sexual double standards, provides inferior child-care services, and relegates women to continued patronizing medical services; the list goes on. But to such a woman such things are tolerable, if not acceptable. Not so for the vast majority of women who, daily, must abide by or confront the inequities, biases, and sexist attitudes which continue to exist.

And if, as Mrs. Wisse says, “the dissatisfaction that [Betty Friedan] ascribed to women’s confinement in the female role was actually the result of their liberation from that role,” and they have been suffering from what Erich Fromm called the “escape from freedom” syndrome, is that not a real problem, too? Or are philosophical anxieties also to be precluded from a woman’s domain?

It is significant that Mrs. Wisse omitted the birth-control pill from her discussion. When, in 1960, women had for the first time absolute control over their biological destinies, the entire course of men/women relationships was changed irrevocably. From that moment on, women could choose not to have children and so to elect a path which had previously been almost the sole prerogative of men. . . .

At this point, our society is not in such great shape. Few people stay married. The family unit is threatened by divorce, by two working parents who leave their children in surrogate care (much of which is comprised of underpaid workers), by women who try to pursue both career and parenthood only to find that they are still doing 90 percent of the domestic work, etc. Is this the result of women’s lib or is it, rather, the result of male resistance to the changes which have taken place?

Mrs. Wisse attributes her own and her generation’s equilibrium in balancing motherhood with career to their certainty “about the relative significance of these ‘roles,’ both in our own lives and in the social fabric, the absolute primacy of the first, the incidental importance of the second.” While I agree that this sense of values is not as pervasive today, it still remains true that most women—at least the ones I know—place raising a child above their salary raises or titles. It’s too bad that their employers, their husbands, and the government which enacts—or fails to enact—child-care legislation, don’t share these values.

Joan Swirsky
Great Neck, New York

_____________

 

Ruth R. Wisse writes:

My article suggested that by misdiagnosing the anxieties of modern women, the movement that pretends to speak for them has in significant ways made their lives more difficult and more troubled. People think for themselves no less today than yesterday; they are as affected as they ever were by poor ideas. The promoters of poor ideas have a lot invested in keeping them afloat. Attempts to expose their poverty are not the “fruitless and solipsistic debates of the privileged” but the plain obligation of citizens.

Jennifer Moses says she frankly does not know whether the women’s movement deserves credit, blame, or mixed reviews. But if she favors a meritocracy, she does know. The women’s movement favors “strong” affirmative action, designating over half the population as a disadvantaged group entitled to compensation for past discrimination. A society must choose between these competing ideas: if it treats women as victims, it cannot pretend to be judging them as equals.

Joan Swirsky appears similarly reluctant to confirm the choices she has made. There is no other reward than a family for having raised one. Perhaps if women were to insist that their priority is raising a new and better generation, then males, husbands, employers, and governments could try to facilitate their task. As it stands, the emphasis of the women’s movement—in its “first” phase—on everything but the family has given America a message as mixed as the one in this letter.

Since my article also brought me exceptionally moving and thoughtful letters, not for publication, I would like to express my thanks to those correspondents as well.

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