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Feminism and the Family an Indissoluble Marriage


May Ann Glendon outlines the real problems women (and families) face today, while explaining how feminism must change in order to become relevant to the needs of modern women.


In September 1995, I had the honor of heading the Vatican delegation to the United Nations' Fourth Conference on Women held in Beijing. The conference's mandate was Action for Equality, Development, and Peace. To what extent the conference advanced that mandate is open to question. I will try to explain why we seem to have seen so little progress toward those goals.

Beijing and the old feminism

As news reports indicated, there were actually two women's conferences in China in September 1995: the official UN conference where delegates and negotiators from 181 member states produced the final version of the document known as the Beijing Program of Action; and a larger, more colorful, unofficial conference held several miles away. This second conference was the NGO conference (nongovernmental organizations). The official conference was attended by 5,000 persons; the NGO conference was attended by 30,000.

The word conference in both cases is somewhat misleading. UN conferences would be more accurately described as dispersed negotiating sessions. Their main aim is to put the final touches on a document that has been circulating for years in draft form. To do this, the delegates split up into groups to go over different sections of the document, paragraph by paragraph, trying to reach consensus on the final text that will be submitted for approval when the whole group comes together on the last day. As for the so-called NGO conference with its 30,000 participants, you wouldn't be far wrong if you translated conference in that setting as lobbyists' headquarters, and NGO as special-interest group. Like most UN conference documents, the statement that emerged after two weeks of negotiations was a set of nonbinding guidelines for future action. The Beijing statement set a UN record for length at 125 pages, single-spaced. The document contains many very fine proposals regarding women's access to education and employment, and the feminization of poverty. But it is marred by two serious defects.

The first is that the best parts of the Beijing program especially the ones I just mentioned are the most likely to remain dead letters because they require funding. If there was anything that united the rich countries at Beijing, it was their successful fight to keep out any language that would commit them to back up their fine promises with material resources.

The second defect also involves something that was left out. It is nothing short of amazing, in a world where over eight out of ten women have children, that a 125-page program of action produced at a women's conference barely mentions marriage, motherhood, or family life!

The reaction of most women to this document, I suspect, would be similar to that of a young Nigerian law student who wrote me recently. She couldn't afford to go to the conference, but she tried to follow it closely from afar. She was disappointed, she said, that the conference had paid so little attention to the problems that the majority of the world's women struggle with on a daily basis. She was surprised, for example, that the section on women's health was focused almost entirely on women's reproductive systems. She wondered why it didn't address the health of the whole woman, particularly the problems of poor nutrition, sanitation, and tropical disease that have a disproportionate impact on women. (Keep in mind that women and girls compose 70 percent of the world's poverty population.)

And even the treatment of reproductive health in the document is strange, since it focuses almost entirely on birth control and abortion as though reproductive health did not include pregnancy and childbirth.

How are these omissions to be explained? For the answer, you only have to look at the original draft document prepared by the UN Committee on the Status of Women. In the few places where the drafting committee mentioned marriage, motherhood, or family life, these aspects of women's lives were described in a negative way as sources of oppression, or as obstacles to women's progress. In other words, what we had to work with in Beijing was a document whose defects corresponded rather closely to the defects of 1970s' feminism. A negative attitude toward men and marriage and the same lack of attention to the problems of women who are mothers were starkly evident.

The conference document is not legally binding. It is in the form of international standards against which UN member states are supposed to measure their conduct. So why all the fuss and lobbying about a set of nonbinding guidelines?

The main reason is this: Government agencies and private foundations tend to use these UN documents (I should say, selected parts of these documents) to justify the way they run their foreign and domestic programs. That means that, when they announce policies and set conditions, they don't have to invoke the modern version of the golden rule (We've got the gold, so we make the rules). It sounds so much better to say: We follow guidelines established by international consensus. But the bottom line is that millions of people's lives are affected by a kind of rule-making as far removed as possible from public scrutiny and democratic participation.

That fact makes these UN conferences magnets for all sorts of special-interest groups, especially those who want to do an end-run around ordinary political processes. It's tempting for them to try to plant their agendas in a long, unreadable document, behind closed doors at a conference held in some faraway place. (When I say closed doors, I mean that literally. All the negotiating sessions in Beijing were closed to the public and the press.)

The Beijing conference offers two lessons for those of us who are concerned with women's issues in the `90s. First, beware of policies manufactured far away from public scrutiny, and without input from the people most concerned. Second, it seems to me the conference was more about the women's ideology of the `70s than about women's issues in the `90s. Beijing was like a Woodstock reunion. Moreover, it showed that the handwriting is on the wall for the peculiar form of feminism that held sway in the 1960s and 1970s. And the message on the wall is the same that was written in the Book of Daniel: You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

That point was reinforced for me by the conversations I had with my students when I returned from Beijing. The very first question the women law students asked had never occurred to me. What was the average age of the women at the conference? Looking back, I realized that there was almost no one there under forty. Most were in their late forties, fifties, or sixties. Many, like Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, were older.

Incidentally, I find it amusing that the attitudes of my women students' toward legendary figures like Abzug and Friedan are similar to the way my generation thought about Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes. We admired them for securing the vote for women, but we didn't identify with them. To us, they seemed quaint, and a bit strange. Similarly, my students seem grateful to the second-wave women's movement for the educational and employment opportunities they now enjoy, but they're ready to move on to new frontiers. In the opinion polls of the `90s, when women are asked, Do you consider yourself a feminist? two-thirds of American women answer no. What's even more striking is the response of younger women. Among college women in their twenties, four out of five say they do not consider themselves feminists.

What is the message that large majorities of women are sending to organized feminism? Betty Friedan herself, I believe, has read it correctly. The message seems to be that official feminism hasn't been listening to the women who are too busy to be in movements, that it is out of touch with the real-life concerns of most women today. In a recent New York Times article, Friedan urges feminists to wake up to the fact that the most urgent concerns of women today are not gender issues but jobs and families. And whom did we see on the cover of Time magazine as the key voter in the 1996 elections? An exhausted, frazzled, working mother. The issue on her mind? Job and family.

I've observed a similar shift in attitude even among my career oriented law students. Law schools were strongholds of feminism in the late `70s when women were a minority. But now that women make up nearly half the student body (and are more representative of the female population), I hear much more concern about how you can have a decent family life without suffering excessive career disadvantages. And, most significant of all, in my view, is that this worry seems to be bothering the young men almost as much as it concerns the women.

The signs of shifting attitudes among men lead to a point I'll discuss later on: the sense in which women's issues of the `90s are everybody's issues. But first, it must be noted that many issues confront men and women in significantly different ways, especially where the women concerned are, or hope to be, mothers. Let me give you some examples of that differential impact.

Women's issues of the 90's

A major issue for the women's movement of the 1970s was the gender gap between men's and women's wages. You may recall we used to hear that for every dollar earned by a man, a woman made 60 cents. Today, women's opportunities have improved to the point where there is virtually no gender gap between the earnings of women and men who have made similar life choices. Among young adults who have never had children, women's earnings are now nearly 98 percent of men's earnings.

But something is wrong with that picture. Why do we talk about women in the abstract when the great majority of women (about 85 percent in the United States) are mothers? The women who are disadvantaged in the workplace are not women in the abstract, but women who are raising children. And the real income gap in this country is between child raising families and other types of households.

Another good example of the different work-family dilemma takes for men and women is what happens when a child-raising family is broken up by divorce. (Keep in mind here that the majority of all divorces, 57 percent, involve couples with children under sixteen.) There is no doubt that the rise in divorce has had a disproportionate effect on women. After divorce it is nearly always the mother who remains primarily responsible for the physical care of the children; the father's standard of living typically rises, while that of the mother and children declines in all too many cases below the poverty line.

To put it another way, motherhood in our society is a pretty risky occupation. Ironically, women in the abstract have never had more rights, but rarely has the position of mothers been more precarious. Women have tried to protect themselves and their children against the risks they face in two ways: They're having fewer children, and they're maintaining at least a foothold in the labor force even when their children are very young. But that strategy still does not protect them very well against what we might call the four deadly Ds: disrespect for unpaid work in the home; disadvantages in the workplace for anyone who takes time out for family responsibilities; divorce; and destitution, a condition that afflicts so many female-headed families.

As if that were not enough, many women now find themselves facing what might be called Work-Family Dilemma II: no sooner has the last child left home than the needs of aging parents start the process of juggling job and family responsibilities all over again.

The fact is that we are in a situation where the experience of past generations gives little guidance. Now that most women are in the labor force, no one has yet come up with a good solution to the problem of who performs the care taking work for children and for the elderly that women used to do, for free. The idea of some social conservatives is that women should just stay home (unless they're welfare mothers, in which case off to work they must go). I can't help thinking that the just stay home idea is a bit like what the chicken said to the pig when they were trying to think what they could give Old MacDonald for a birthday present. The chicken said: How about a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs I'll provide the eggs and you give the bacon. You can see why the pig was not enthusiastic about that division of labor.

Another set of problems that will have a disparate impact on women is just beginning to come into view. Thanks to medical advances, we have never had such a large elderly population. As you know, that group includes more women than men. At the same time, we know that much of the burden of supporting that population will fall on the shoulders of a labor force that is growing proportionately smaller.

Against that background, a real concern about the assisted-suicide movement is the pressure that is going to be exerted on elderly people in failing health to cease using up scarce resources. When you consider that three out of four poor Americans over sixty five are women, you can see that this is yet another issue that is everybody's issue, but that will affect women in a special way. It is sobering to think that more than two-thirds of the people Dr. Jack Kevorkian has helped to die are women.

Assisted suicide also involves the political problem mentioned earlier in connection with Beijing the question of who settles whose hash. The right to die (like the right to abortion) is being pushed mainly by the kind of people who are accustomed to having a lot of control over their lives. The outcome of the debate over this issue is likely to be determined by judges who are also people who are used to having a lot of control over their lives.

To privileged folks, the right to die may look like an aspect of personal freedom a way of feeling in control until the very end. In the case of such people, it may well work out that way. But how is it going to work out for the less fortunate, the people who are in the most danger of being regarded as burdensome to their families and a drag on the taxpayers of the welfare state? What is a right to die for some may well become a duty to die for others. And if that happens, women, again, will be most affected.

Consider the ways in which, despite the disparate impact on women, all these problems are everybody's problems. One of the main sources of discontent with the old feminism was the way it set women and men at odds with one another. Now we're beginning to realize that we're all in this thing together. In the world of work, men as well as women are increasingly chafing under pressures to put the demands of the job ahead of the needs of their families. Both men and women are increasingly realizing that feminists have always had a strong point when they complained that society gives little respect or security to people who make sacrifices for their children and families. Ironically, the `70s feminists bought into that disrespect. By treating marriage and motherhood as obstacles to women's progress, they actually helped to reinforce the idea that the only work that counts is work for pay outside the home.

But while feminists were maintaining, correctly, that society doesn't respect work in the home, things were changing in the workplace outside the home. In all too many ways the new globalized economy is sending the same message to working men and women that society once sent to homemakers: that they and the work they do are not worthy of much respect.

Monsignor George Higgins, a longtime advocate of the rights of workers, asked some important questions in a recent speech. When a profitable company downsizes, doesn't that tell dedicated employees that their years of service don't really count for much? When employees' wages stagnate while their companies prosper, aren't working people being told that their effort and skill aren't valued? And when benefits like health insurance and pensions are cutback, doesn't that tell working people that nobody cares what happens when they get sick and old? To those questions, you might add: What scale of values rewards some CEOs to the tune of $200 million a year (head of Disney) while moms and dads must work harder than ever to counter a relative decline in real family income?

All these are men's and women's issues. They are family issues. They are issues about what kind of society we want to try to hand on to future generations. Something is wrong when most jobs are too rigidly structured to accommodate family responsibilities. Something is wrong when we frame laws and policies as though human beings existed to serve the economy, rather than the other way round. In the long run, that's not even good for the economy. To spell out the obvious: a healthy economy requires a certain kind of work force, with certain skills and qualities of character. And those qualities honesty, a work ethic, and the ability to cooperate with others are going to be acquired, for the most part, in the nation's families or not at all.

Having said that, it is not easy to imagine what can be done about all this. Some factors, such as worldwide economic developments, may be outside the control of any one country. Other factors, let's admit it, are more related to the materialistic excesses of a consumer society than to basic family needs. We Americans do have a tendency to want to have it all. But anyone who has tried to combine work and family life knows that we can't have it all. You're always shortchanging somebody somewhere one day it's the job, the next it's your spouse, or your children. The grown-up question is not can all our dreams come true. The real question is whether we can do better than we're doing now. Is it possible to harmonize women's and men's roles in social and economic life with their desires (and their children's needs) for a decent family life?

I would say it's possible but that the prospects are dim, unless society as a whole is prepared to recognize that when mothers and fathers raise their children well, they are not just doing something for themselves and their own children, but for all of us. Governments, private employers, and fellow citizens would all have to recognize that we all owe an enormous debt to parents who do a good job raising their children under today's difficult conditions. There's something heroic about the everyday sacrifices that people have to make these days just to do the right thing by their nearest and dearest.

What is to be done?

The above observations bring me to the realm of politics. I want to focus on one basic problem: the problem of how American men and women can gain a say in the decisions that shape their lives and livelihoods a voice in our jobs, in our children's education, in our communities, and in the direction our country is taking.

Is that problem soluble? A glance around the social landscape is not particularly reassuring. Something is terribly wrong when Americans from every viewpoint and every walk of life are beginning to feel that the forces that govern our economic and political lives have spun out of control; and when parents feel that they are losing the struggle for the hearts and minds of their own children.

There has been much speculation about why Americans seem uninterested in voting and in the electoral process generally. That disaffection just might have something to do with citizens' deepest concerns. Reporting on political party finances shows that that common perception isn't uniformed. Both political parties are heavily financed by big business the Democrats by the kinds of businesses that make their livings from government, and the Republicans by the kinds of businesses that just want government to butt out. Yes, the Democrats throw a few crumbs to working men and women. Yes, the Republicans throw a few crumbs to those who are concerned about the moral fabric of society. But it's been a long time since either party has done much for constituents whose main concerns are a decent job and decent conditions for raising a family.

My one suggestion for a possible solution to this problem is likely to make many people groan, but I can see no other alternative. Simply put, more of us have to take a more active role in politics. Frustration with a distant, unresponsive government is nothing new in America. Indeed, this nation was founded in the rejection of unresponsive government. The constitutional convention in Philadelphia produced an ingenious design for a republic with democratic elements. (Not a pure democracy, but a republic in which the democratic elements were extremely important.) To protect those democratic elements, the Bill of Rights specified that all powers not expressly delegated to the federal government, or forbidden to the states, are reserved to the states and the people. That's the forgotten part of the Bill of Rights the Tenth Amendment. You'll wait a long time before you hear a peep about the powers reserved to the people from the groups that are self-appointed defenders of our civil liberties. Yet what liberty is more basic than the freedom to participate in setting the conditions under which we live, work, and raise our families?

Now it seems that many people are tempted to give up on the idea that we, especially at the local level, can help to make things better They're tempted to give up on the idea that we could ever take back democratic institutions; that we could ever restore decision-making power to the many who have the most to lose from the few who have the most to gain. But, to be honest, the women and men who have gone before us often faced much greater challenges than we do now. Do we really want to be the generation who didn't even try to turn things around? After all, this isn't Eastern Europe where the men and women who toppled authoritarian regimes are now struggling to build democratic government from scratch. We have the machinery at hand. We've had it for over 200 years. It's rusty, but it's there. Let's use it.



Glendon, Mary Ann. Feminism and the Family an Indissoluble Marriage. Commonweal (February 14, 1997): 11-15.

Reprinted with permission of Commonweal. This article is adapted from a talk given to the Berkshire County Pregnancy Assistance Association.

The Author

glendon Mary Ann Glendon was the United States Ambassador to the Holy See from 2004 until 2009 and is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.  She teaches and writes on bioethics, comparative constitutional law, property, and human rights in international law.  Glendon is currently the first female President of the Roman Catholic Church's official Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.  She is the author of many books, including: Traditions in Turmoil, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, A Nation Under Lawyers: How the Crisis in the Legal Profession is Transforming American Society, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, and (edited with David Blankenhorn) Seedbeds of Virtue:Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society.

Mary Ann Glendon is winner of the Order of the Coif Prize, the legal academy's highest award for scholarship.  She lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 1997 Commonweal
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