Between women and feminism, a yawning gap

Carolyn Moynihan
8 March 2011
Reproduced with Permission

It is International Women's Day and we are almost finished marking it Down Under. This morning the New Zealand Herald ran an opinion piece from the British newspaper the Observer as its gesture towards the occasion. As the writer complained, people (especially the men who still control most of the world's media) tend to be apathetic towards this annual celebration of what women have achieved and heads-up about what still needs to be done for the fair sex.

I must say that I felt a yawn coming on myself when it dawned on me what day it was, even after realising it was the 100th such event and therefore particularly significant. The next feeling was impatience. After more than four decades of second wave feminism, women in countries like mine really are mistresses of their own destiny, and if they are working the double shift, or bringing up a child alone, or being subjected to gender violence, it is very likely their own fault. Yes it is.

Then anger. Women were supposed to bring their unique values to public life and transform our societies into better places. Instead, in too many instances, we have sold ourselves short, debasing our sexuality, depriving children of fathers and a proper home life and even agreeing to the killing of unborn children as a way of burying our mistakes. Men could not have come as far adrift from family life unless we had let them.

In New Zealand five years ago 30 per cent of households with children were headed by single mothers. The figure is probably higher now. In the United States in 2008 out-of-wedlock births passed the 40 per cent mark. Many of these mothers were cohabiting with the father, but such relationships have proved unstable and very likely to break down. To the great disadvantage of the children -- especially girls, to be quite feminist about it.

Women have proved that they have brains -- they now outnumber men in graduating from universities in the developed world. They have shown that they can do a wide range of demanding jobs and that they can look after themselves financially. All good. What they have yet to show is how their education and earning capacity can be combined successfully with the one career that is exclusively theirs: motherhood.

This essential vocation and service remains the aspiration of the vast majority of women -- as does marriage, without which motherhood is a burden to the woman and an insufficient support to the child. Yet, as research by the US National Marriage Project has shown, the erosion of marriage has penetrated far into the middle ranks of society. There are several reasons for this -- economic, cultural and civic -- but one of them is surely feminism's antagonism to the family as a "patriarchal" institution and its insistence on female independence as a lifelong state.

It's thanks to this ideological stance that we still have Ministers of Women's Affairs, their bureaucracies and their international Big Sisters pushing for gender equality policies which assume that husbands and wives -- or domestic partners -- should each do exactly half of both childcare and domestic chores and half of the paid work to support a household. Research has shown that this is not what women with young children want.

If women want to have the choice to be wives and mothers in anything more than a nominal sense, it is time to knock this sort of nonsense on the head. Whatever good feminism was going to do has been done; now it is time to tidy up the house and start living again.

But what of the developing world? Don't women there still need Michelle Bachelet and her new improved, half-billion-dollar UN Women organisation? It is true that women in the poorer countries are at an even greater disadvantage than men when it comes to education, personal safety and economic opportunity. There is still much to be done to recognise the equal human dignity and rights of women and to give them concrete expression.

But the developed nations, with their tenuous grasp on what constitutes the dignity of women and on the relationships that underpin a healthy society, are a poor model. Ms Bachelet has complained that the money for her work is not coming through. Good. I would not give UN Women or any women's organisation another cent until it can show that it understands the importance of marriage and motherhood. In that order.

When we have found a few more of those, it will be time to celebrate International Women's Day with enthusiasm.