YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY, MAYBE: Feminism Today

Thursday, September 2, 1999

How has the status of women in America improved over the past forty years of feminism? As past problems have been solved, have new ones been created? What are the most important issues for the women's movement today? For that matter, just how much do women agree on what it even means to be a feminist?

Recorded on Thursday, September 2, 1999

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I’m Peter Robinson. Our show, Feminism Today. At the turn of the century women sought political equality, the emphasis of course was on getting to vote. By the 1960’s they sought social equality, liberalization from values they saw as old and confining. Well you get the idea. In more recent years the emphasis has shifted to economic equality. Paychecks for women as big as paychecks for men. Today, well, women have the vote. They’ve lived through the sexual revolution and according to some studies they’ve already achieved economic parody with men. So what do they want now? With us, three guests.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Cathy Young is the author of Cease Fire/Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. Stacy Karp is the president of the San Francisco Chapter of the National Organization for Women. From Ozzie & Harriet to Ally McBeal. You've come a long way baby, but are you happy where you are?

Think the 1950's, I Love Lucy, Ozzie & Harriet. Now think the 1990's, Ally McBeal. Are women better off today than they were then? Jennifer?

Jennifer Morse: In terms of education and economic opportunities women are better off today. But in terms of personal relationships, I would argue that we're much worse off today than we were then.

Peter Robinson: Complicated answer. Stacy.

Stacy Karp: I think yes. I think we are.

Peter Robinson: Unambiguously

Stacy Karp: I think there are certain parts of women's lives that aren't better. But I think in general if I have to give a yes or nor answer, I would say yes, women are better off today.

Peter Robinson: Cathy.

Cathy Young: I think women are better off but I'm not sure that necessarily worse off in terms of personal relationships. I think relationships have always been complicated. We're just talking about it more these days I think.

Peter Robinson: All right. Work force participation. One of the things that's happened between Ozzie & Harriet and Allie McBeal is that the proportion of women in the work forces have risen very dramatically so that today, a large majority of American women of working age are in the paid workforce working outside the home. Should we be happy about that? Stacy?

Stacy Karp: Yes. We should.

Peter Robinson: We should?

Stacy Karp: I think we should.

Peter Robinson: Simple answer. Cathy?

Cathy Young: I think we should. Although it certainly has created some social complications, but I think on the whole—

Peter Robinson: Name a social complication for me.

Cathy Young: Oh well, I think certainly there is a kind of deficit in the traditional things that women used to do in the home.

Peter Robinson: Such as?

Cathy Young: Well, such as childcare being the most obvious. And I think men have not really picked up the slack as much as many of us would like to. And I think those are issues we still have to grapple with.

Peter Robinson: That's actually extremely serious, isn't it? If all the studies we show what goes on the formative years of the younger years in a child's life is terribly important. So there's a deficit in child-rearing, that's quite an important point. Isn't it?

Cathy Young: Well, it is. I don't really want to over dramatize because I have looked at a lot of studies. In fact there is evidence that when the mother works the father usually does spend more time with the child. So that—

Peter Robinson: So it's not a big problem, actually.

Cathy Young: …to a great extent really offsets the deficit. But I think it does create a lot of stress for some people.

Peter Robinson: Jennifer, [we're focusing participation] uh, good news, I'm hearing.

Jennifer Morse: The trend towards women's increased participation in the workforce began well before the women's movement. In fact if you look at the statistics side of the labor force participation of married women, that trend begins at the turn of the century.

Peter Robinson: Is it good?

Jennifer Morse: And is it good? I would emphasize what Cathy said a little bit differently. There are difficulties in family life that's hard to do. Trying to do it all. There are only 24 hours in a day and the idea that you're going to do it all or have it all, I think that's for people who can't add.

Peter Robinson: Cathy and Stacy have both said the workforce participation is good and there's some problems at home but they're minor compared to the benefit. Am stating that your position correctly?

Stacy Karp: But it's also that we want to let women have the opportunity to make that choice. A lot of women who live in two parent families need to work for economical reasons. It's difficult for a family to live on one individual income. So women need to be—

Peter Robinson: An income tax would make it easier for families to live on one income. Well the National Organization for Women go for that? Would one item on your platform be an income tax cut for Americans? Because it would give additional choice to women, that is to say you don't want them to go into the workforce because they have to. You want them to do it because they choose to do so, right? So you guys would back a tax cut?

Stacy Karp: That's debatable. We don't have an official position on that. So I can't say—

Peter Robinson: Are you working on one or this is a position from which you will abstain?

Stacy Karp: It's something that we are discussing as an organization.

Cathy Young: One of the provisions of the tax cut that was passed by Congress recently has to do with an issue that I think is very important to working women and that's the marriage penalty.

Peter Robinson: Explain the marriage penalty.

Cathy Young: Well the marriage penalty is basically when you have a progressive income tax. Sometimes in many cases when there's a second income, that income actually pushes the couple into a higher tax bracket. So basically it's almost like the women are penalized for working. And there are cases in which the couple may actually be better off, ironically, financially if the woman does not work because the tax system. And in fact the Republicans, interestingly enough, who are accused of being anti-working women are the ones who are now pushing for a very significant reduction in a marriage penalty. And I think that's an issue that I'm kind of surprised the National Organization for Women has taken a stand on.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Jennifer Morse: But I think if you would compare Ally McBeal with Ozzie & Harriet, one of the key differences is the tax burden today is so much higher than it was in 1950 or 1960.

Stacy Karp: A lot of the taxes that we are paying for go for—

Peter Robinson: Childcare.

Stacy Karp: Childcare, well, some of them go for childcare. For public education, these are all important things for women and their families.

Peter Robinson: Would you go for it?

Cathy Young: Oh, I certainly would. I think not—

Peter Robinson: A tax cut.

Cathy Young: …just, not just for women but everyone that—

Peter Robinson: Yeah, but this show is about women. Would you consider it liberating for women?

Cathy Young: Sure. Because I think certainly it allows women to make more of their own choices; about how to spend resources. But if I could just make one really quick point and I think, we really cannot discuss women totally in isolation from men because guess what, you know women are married, are married to men, for the most part. I think that women will not really be liberated, if you want to use that word, until men also have that choice. Because as long as we're continuing to see it as only a choice for women, I think in some ways it's always going to create a lot of differences—

Peter Robinson: You want men to have what choice? The choice of staying home?

Cathy Young: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: And what is standing in the way of that choice now?

Cathy Young: Culturally, not only men, but women.

Peter Robinson: They would be embarrassed in the locker room at the YMCA when they meet their buddies who just came home from work. If they asked, what did you do today? Well, I changed diapers all day. It's cultural, is what you're saying.

Cathy Young: Well, it's cultural and—

Peter Robinson: You're radical. You want to rewrite the entire culture? Is that what you want?

Cathy Young: Well, I think certainly when women went into the workforce, I think in a lot of ways really involved the culture.

Stacy Karp: It's also a question of economics. If you're choosing—

Peter Robinson: That's why the tax cut—

Stacy Karp: Well—

Peter Robinson: And you won't go for it.

Stacy Karp: Well, we want women to be paid equally. If women were being paid what men were being paid, maybe men would take that choice of staying at home. Because it wouldn't be a part of economic decision.

Peter Robinson: Women are paid less than men.

Jennifer Morse: If you look at women, never married women and compared them with never married men, you will find that their incomes in comparable occupations are very, very comparable. Cathy documents some of these points in her book. The issue for equality of earnings by and large has to do with children. And not just whether you have them right now, but whether you anticipate having them and what kind of decisions you make in anticipation of your years that are going to be devoted to the care of children.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So what you're saying is that the women earn less because they choose to do so.

Stacy Karp: Well, I think some women granted. I will give you part of that. But some women do make that choice. But there are women in positions equal to men that don't get paid the same amount of money and there are companies that don't promote women equally with men, that aren't being paid—

Peter Robinson: And what do you want to do about it? Pass laws?

Stacy Karp: Well, there are laws. They're just not being enforced.

Cathy Young: And you know, the thing is that if you really do look at men and women in the same positions not only in terms of actually job description but job experience of how continuously they've been on the workforce. Really, men and women who are similarly situated really are making similar amounts of money. And the thing is, if you take time off from work—there was one study which showed that a woman who takes as little as nine months off being on the work force, compared not to men, but to other women who have not taken time off. Six years later, she will make about 17% less money and her chances of getting to upper middle management are reduced by 25%. Now you might say this is just sexist prejudice against women who are taking time off. But the thing is if you look at men who have had a career interruption, their career has actually suffered even worse. So you know—

Peter Robinson: Next issue. The pill. The pill becomes widely used in the 1960's. It was supposed to liberate women. Betty praised it. Loretta Lynn sang songs about it. The question is, did it? Has it? Frances Fukiyama, the essayist has made this point, that at the beginning of the period, the 1960's society, if a man got a women pregnant he was expected to marry her and provide for her and the child. Society imposed sanctions of responsibility on the man. Now if a man gets a woman pregnant it's her fault. She should have been on the pill. And she's forced to either have an abortion or to raise the child alone. She falls into poverty. We know that single mothers raising children tend to be in poverty at much higher rates than other sectors of the population. So my question is, did the pill liberate women or actually damage their status? Jennifer?

Jennifer Morse: I would agree with Fukiyama's analysis in very large measure. I think the secondary consequences of the pill have been far faster than most people anticipated.

Peter Robinson: Stacy, pro-pill? Anti-pill?

Stacy Karp: I'm pro-pill. I believe that it has liberated women. It's let women be sexually active if they choose to be so. And maybe the women who weren't on the pill in the 50's that go married because they were pregnant, didn't want to be married. Maybe they didn't want that to be their lifestyle.

Peter Robinson: You're saying that these consequences did flow from the pill or that the pill had nothing to do with the divorce, the illegitimacy, and so forth.

Stacy Karp: I don't think so.

Peter Robinson: Do you grant that they had—

Stacy Karp: No. I think it's a greater societal change that's going on. With women being liberated. There is a connection with the pill but not—

Peter Robinson: Okay, so the primary function of the pill is to permit women to engage in sexual activity outside the traditional venue of marriage. And that is a good thing.

Stacy Karp: I think so.

Peter Robinson: Okay. You understand that you are overturning 5,000 years of Judea Christian teaching?

Stacy Karp: Yes. I do.

Peter Robinson: And you're happy to do it in the name of Women's Lib?

Stacy Karp: Yes, I do. Yes.

Peter Robinson: So traditional morality is in and of itself oppressive to women.

Stacy Karp: I think so.

Cathy Young: I wouldn't go so far as to say that traditional morality is necessarily oppressive to women. But I do think that on the whole the pill has been a good thing. I think one mistake, in my view, that Fukiyama makes, I think he tends to assume that the reason that there's more single motherhood than necessarily, that men are no longer willing to take responsibility for marrying the women that they impregnate. And I would argue though actually in many cases that it's women choosing not to enter into these shotgun marriages. Because I think it's not just that men don't want to be around, but I think women having more economic opportunities---and I'm not saying that that's totally a good thing, by the way—

Peter Robinson: We have two basically pro-pill positions here. They liberate women.

Jennifer Morse: One of the things that contraception did and the wide availability of the pill is that it created in people's minds a disconnect between reproduction and sexual activity. Sexual activity is something that has the potential to create a great bond and a great union between two people, right. And that’s in a sense you might say metaphysically that's what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to bond two people physically, emotionally, spiritually and then, their bond is so real that nine months later they have to give it a new name. You know, and so—

Peter Robinson: But that's not what Stacy wants. Stacy wants fun.

[cross talk]

Jennifer Morse: She didn't say that. She didn't say that.

Peter Robinson: I heard a pretty close argument—

[cross talk]

Jennifer Morse: But what I want to say, is that disconnect, say of taking my sexual activity and putting it in this category and my reproduction and putting it in this category, and my relationship with my spouse and putting it in this category. It has a way of disconnecting itself, whereas those things can be a whole part of an organic approach to the whole person and to the one's whole life, inside of a marriage and inside of a family. Those things can work together. And what we’ve done is we've chopped them apart. And I think there's a loss there.

Peter Robinson: Chopping apart. D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Has no fault divorce benefited women or not? At the beginning of the period we're talking about, divorce was pretty hard to get in this country. In nearly every State, which I'm aware, fault had to be proven. That is to say even if both parties wanted to get divorced, adultery or some other very serious misbehavior nevertheless had to be established in court. It was an onerous difficult process. Now we have no fault divorce. It's not easy to get divorced even now. But basically if both parties want to get divorced, after that it's a matter of paperwork. Has that liberated women? Stacy?

Stacy Karp: I think so. I think it's enabled women to say I'm not happy in this marriage and I want out. Whereas before it wasn't socially acceptable to be a single woman. Women are not here to be married, to have children, those are not their sole responsibilities and purpose for being.

Peter Robinson: You're pretty interested in metaphysics, too. What are women here for?

[laughter]

Stacy Karp: Whatever they want to be here for.

Peter Robinson: Girls just want to have fun. If they do just want to have fun, that's okay with you?

Stacy Karp: Right. For sure. I think that's what the feminist movement in the 90's is all about.

Peter Robinson: Having fun? Wait a minute—

Stacy Karp: Letting women make choices according to what they want to do.

Peter Robinson: Jennifer, do you like a society in which divorce is easy?

Jennifer Morse: The one option that we don't really have in the same way is we don't have the option of life-long commitment in the same way. We can say we have the option of life-long commitment, but we know that our spouse can, if he wants, he can walk. We know that that's possible.

Stacy Karp: And so can we.

Jennifer Morse: And so can we. But life-long commitment has a series of goods attached to it that you can't simulate through a series of other things. And that you can't simulate through a series of temporary unions, okay.

Peter Robinson: Those goods would include?

Jennifer Morse: Well, for that matter Peter, you don't really grow up as a person until you sign your name on the line and commit yourself. What happens inside a marriage, what can happen, what should happen, is that we all have faults. We all have problems. We all do things we shouldn't do and who is there in our life that is better able to tell us about it, but our spouse, right. Well, that's exactly the moment when you would most like to just walk out and tell him, take a hike. If your committed in an environment where you're committed to one another and committed to the relationship, you're going to face up to that. And you're going to stand through it in a way that you're not going to be able to if you know that there's a door half-open in the background.

Peter Robinson: And the commitment of the couple is by itself insufficient. You argue that the regal regime needs to encourage or even insist upon permanent marriage.

Jennifer Morse: Peter, what I would say is this. I would say it's harder because we can have a commitment that we know—we can't totally pre-commit because we know that the other person could have the option of voiding that commitment.

Peter Robinson: So let's take an extreme case. Do you want the Republic of Ireland, in which even today, divorce is illegal? Not recognized by the State?

Jennifer Morse: I wouldn't want divorce to always be illegal, but I think the previous regime where some fault was required that that was a better situation.

Peter Robinson: That ought to be harder than it is today.

Jennifer Morse: That was a better situation than unilateral divorce.

Peter Robinson: So divorce should be harder than it is today?

Cathy Young: Well, I think unilateral divorce should be harder. But actually I do think that if you look at the studies, first of all. Every study that I've seen shows up two-thirds of the time it's the woman who initiates the divorce.

Peter Robinson: It is? Why is it two-thirds of the time it's the woman who wants to get out?

Cathy Young: I do think actually that overall, women after divorce are better off than men are. First of all, there are a lot of studies which question even the notion economically women after divorce aren't necessarily worse off then men, because when you take taxes into account, that kind of changes the whole picture. But also if you look at psychological consequences, men who are divorced are much more likely than women to let go of the divorce unto to which that they were still married. In generally speaking women--

Peter Robinson: So if the women who usually want out do better afterwards, what's the—

Jennifer Morse: I don't accept her statistics.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, the flaws?

Jennifer Morse: The two-thirds initiating the divorce, that I accept. The financial stuff, I think is not true. I find that very implausible. The studies I have seen do not show that so I don't know what—

Peter Robinson: We could argue this study versus that study for hours. I want to ask Stacy about the meaning of Women's Liberation today. Stacy, we're talking about Women's Libber, has this liberated, has birth control liberated women, has divorce liberated women? What is it that you seek to liberate women from? What is the particular form of oppression?

Stacy Karp: From the oppression and the discrimination. If we have—

Peter Robinson: Of what? What is it that—

Stacy Karp: There's a lot of oppression that's going on with reproductive rights, reproductive health, where there's a lot—

Peter Robinson: What is it?

Stacy Karp: Well, right now, we do have Roe v. Wade, which says that women are able to get an abortion but there's starting to be issues around waiting periods, around parental consent. You know in San Francisco, we're really lucky where there are a lot of clinics we can go to get an abortion. But if you go into small world city, and poor women who aren't able to drive that's a big issue.

Peter Robinson: That's the signal issue for you then, right now. Is that you want unlimited, completed unlimited abortion rights?

Stacy Karp: Yes. If women want to abort, they should be able to do so. No questions asked.

Cathy Young: For whatever reason?

Stacy Karp: It's their body. Who are we to say—

Cathy Young: But wait a minute, even at a late term, they can for whatever reason?

Stacy Karp: I do. Yes, I do.

Cathy Young: Well, but you know, most women don't agree with that. In fact, if you look at surveys, about 75% women accept some restrictions on abortion.

Stacy Karp: But I think it's also absurd to say—

Peter Robinson: Have you other forms of oppression? So far, it sounds as though it's just abortion.

Stacy Karp: Choice is a big issue. That is a big issue for women. But it's also—

Peter Robinson: Name one more.

Stacy Karp: But it's also violence against women. There is a lot of violence against women that is going on across the country. We have hate crime issues and hate crime legislation is trying to include gender—

Peter Robinson: Okay, would you accept then that we're a long, long way from the feminine mystique that Betty Ferdan wrote about women trapped leading dreary lives, trapped in marriages in suburbia—

Stacy Karp: I do. I think women, like we said from the very beginning—

Peter Robinson: What you've got left is violence against women, which is illegal, whether it's against women or men—

Stacy Karp: Right.

Peter Robinson: And abortion. And that's what you guys stand for now?

Stacy Karp: And economics. Economics, equal pay for equal work, which we've gone over.

Peter Robinson: All right. Cathy.

Cathy Young: Well, I would say, first of all, I certainly feel—I don't think women, American women are oppressed today.

Peter Robinson: Do you feel oppressed?

Stacy Karp: Not all the time, but sure. There are times when I walk down the street and I don't feel safe as a woman.

Cathy Young: But wait a minute, I know a lot of men who don't feel safe when they walk down the street in New York City.

Stacy Karp: But it's much more women who don't feel safe.

Cathy Young: If we look at the issues that Stacy brings up, I think, you know certainly, I would say abortion is really pretty much available today to any woman who wants it—

Peter Robinson: Do you want it to remain available?

Cathy Young: I do. But I'm not opposed to certain restrictions like waiting periods. I think that's quite reasonable. But in terms of violence against women, for instance, you know men are really the primary victims of violent crime in this country. So I would say—

Peter Robinson: Last topic. Are the women who choose to say home and raise families treated fairly in today's culture? Have feminists tilted the culture, so to speak, too far? So, here's what I mean. We've been talking about specific examples, I know women who are highly educated very competent people and could hold big jobs out in the workforce, but have chosen to stay home and raise children. And they feel, I hear stories about looks they get in the grocery stores, comments that other working women make. They feel oppressed because the role of motherhood has been, so to speak, degraded. Do you buy that? Is that true?

Jennifer Morse: I think there's a lot of that.

Peter Robinson: Has feminism gone too far?

Jennifer Morse: Well, I wouldn't want to blame it all on feminism, but feminism is a piece of it, I think, that the role, first of all it's the role of the family, it's the role of the child. The idea that what you're doing in that private sphere in the home that is somehow intrinsically valuable and intrinsically important. I think there are many forces in our society that attack that in various ways.

Peter Robinson: Could you agree that it would be a form of liberation for women if the culture placed a higher value on the role of making a home and child rearing.

Stacy Karp: Definitely. The feminist movement has always said that women should do what they want to do. It should be their choice.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, but [cross talk] was that she burst out of the suburbs and was freed from this dreary life. I mean that's the whole tenure—

Stacy Karp: But she didn't want—there are women in the women's movement that are mothers—

Peter Robinson: Okay, but the message was, it just wasn't cool.

Stacy Karp: Well, I don't—

Peter Robinson: No? Okay.

Stacy Karp: Well, I don't know if that is really the message and I—

Cathy Young: I want to go back to my earlier point. Yes, I do think that you're right, that there are women who kind of get condescending looks because they're staying home. But, think about a man who makes that choice. He is going to get even more condescending looks and he is going to get even more of a societal stigma. So I think really to deal with this issue we do have to look at it as a human issue. And I think we—

Jennifer Morse: That's my point. I agree with that. I think—

Cathy Young: I think we have to make that a choice for everyone.

Jennifer Morse: It goes beyond—

Peter Robinson: How would reform the National Organization for Women? You want to be reformed to—

Cathy Young: No. No. Peter. My point is just that is that the family itself is a suspect institution in a certain way. In other words it's not just because it's not just whether the guys stays home and takes care of the kids, or the wife stays home and takes care of the kids. It's that you're not really doing much. I think we don't fully appreciate what is going on in there and that our primary business as parents and as spouses, our primary business is relational. Not economic. Our business there is relation. We're there to build relationship. Right, and—

Peter Robinson: And we're out of time, I'm sorry to say. One last question, a quick one. A quick one. You're only allowed to answer. You can't go back to previous points. Name the one woman, who to your mind, best embodies your own ideal of feminism. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, we're out of time. Stacy name a woman.

Stacy Karp: I think Eleanor Roosevelt did wonderful amazing things for women.

Peter Robinson: Articulate, politically engaged.

Stacy Karp: Politically active. Aware and did really expand—

Peter Robinson: You're going to give her high points as a mother, is that in the—

Stacy Karp: Definitely.

Peter Robinson: Jennifer. Go ahead.

Jennifer Morse: Elizabeth Katie Stanton. She had kids. She was politically active, but she was not engaged in that and she was not part of a free-love social revolution type of movement. She was engaged in political—

Peter Robinson: She wanted women to have to vote—

Jennifer Morse: Political and legal rights.

Peter Robinson: Your woman?

Cathy Young: Margaret Thatcher. Because I think she really is an example of how women who don't sort of have the political ideas that are considered politically correct by a lot of people in the women's movement can really exemplify achievements and liberation certainly. She was by the way married and had kids and to my knowledge turned out pretty well. And she certainly achieved a lot more than was ever really dreamed possible.

Peter Robinson: We'll send a copy of this show to Lady Thatcher and tell her to watch the last part first. Cathy, Stacy and Jennifer, thank you very much.

So what will improve the lives of women today? One guest says the radial feminist agenda, including lesbian rights. Another suggests a return to more traditional values. Well, one way or the other, I've got work to do before my wife gets home. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us—M for macaroni and cheese …..

More from Uncommon Knowledge