Cosmetic Changes

The women's movement has only come so far.

She walks into the room, stunning as ever, and I tell her she looks good, except for the dumb shoes.

"They're the lowest heels I have," she says, confirming once more what I've increasingly come to suspect: The so-called accomplishments of the women's movement are largely illusory and mostly cosmetic. They are illusory because they have failed to result in substantive changes in the way society governs itself; they are cosmetic because they present a successful face masking a failure of purpose.

If you need proof that the women's movement has failed to live up to its possibilities, all you need do is take a look around. Check out the entertainment industry; look at women's magazines; note the increasing number of anorexic teenage girls and their younger sisters--still in elementary school--who believe they are too fat and need to diet. What you'll find is a postmodern version of the same old sorry story.

More than 30 years ago, when the most recent iteration of women's rumblings hit the streets, the bookstores and the media, a heady enthusiasm swelled among the mainly white, middle-class movement leaders who exhorted their sisters to throw off the yoke of patriarchy and liberate themselves from the so-called traditional roles of hausfrau and mother. This liberatory feat was to be realized when women enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those who held power: white males. Essential work, such as cleaning toilets, was dismissed and diminished as drudge work. And, of course, few gave any real thought to the children, other than mouthing ill-thought-out nonsense about day care.

A combination of shrill, outlandish and threatening manifestos, pronunciamentos, books and papers succeeded in alienating a significant number of women, many of them working-class women and women of color. Reactive and silly organizations such as Men Our Masters flourished, while the women's movement went off the deep end in its misguided quest for power rather than solidarity. (Too many wanted their share of the pie rather than a new recipe for the pie.)

In those early years, too few voices pointed out the fallacy of limited objectives, or expressed reservations about including such dubious achievements as piloting a fighter plane among future benchmarks of women's progress. These women understood that any legislative or political changes allowing women to enter Yale or join "men only" associations were not going to result in any substantive change. What these women wanted was a wholesale reshaping of society: a demilitarized society rather than one where teenage girls could be killed alongside their brothers; a society where people were placed before profits; where no child went hungry or without medical care, and where men and women shared their lives free of the generations-old notions of dominance and submission. What these women wanted was a re-telling of history, a new language and a cultural transformation that went far beyond admittance to previously all-male institutions.

Day care facilities in corporations, once unheard of but now heralded as an example of how far we've come, may help women juggle their workload, and "family friendly" workplaces are not altogether unheard of. But these palliatives serve the marketplace first and women second. It's in business' best interest to keep its female workers mollified.

Numbers are a facile way to point to what some consider "women's progress." But more women working, more women in professions traditionally bastions of male privilege, more women in sports and more women in politics are not producing the results well-intentioned but naive feminists hoped they might. On the contrary, they have largely co-opted the women's movement through the seductive lure of success as defined and measured by the materialistic standards of power and money radical women (and some men) reject. In addition, many women find themselves working harder and longer than they did when they were "oppressed by patriarchy," as the tired rhetoric claimed. As a consequence of failed vision and co-optation, there has been minimal progress in the kind of cultural shift necessary for transforming society.

In a 1972 interview with Daniel Ellsberg, which appeared in the first issue of Ms. magazine, the former Pentagon adviser said, "Perhaps women and their cultural values will save this country from itself. And for all of us." This statement is both poignant and naive. Cultural values defined by gender is a squishy notion; perhaps Ellsberg meant the feminine principle (as in the yin part of the yang and yin whole). But whatever he meant, the fact is women have not saved the country from itself (which is a preposterous idea). Instead, after more than 30 years of women's efforts, we've ended up with Bush in the White House, Cheney in the shadows, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld wreaking havoc with our civil liberties and our military, and our economy on the brink.

Yes, we have Roe v. Wade, but on the other side of that equation, we have young women dying in combat in an ill-conceived and unnecessary war.

A recent Associated Press article in the Tucson Citizen describes Sgt. Erin Edwards, 23, who left her infant daughter and 3-year-old son to serve in Iraq. Edwards is quoted as saying: "I would love to be at home with my kids, but I'm doing this for them. I wouldn't want to do anything else."

What kind of success can the women's movement claim that justifies young mothers adopting the slogans and sentiments of war? When and if we witness young men, as well as women, no longer willing to blindly take up arms; when we find ourselves living in a nation that makes peace and justice its first priority and values words over weapons, then we can begin to speak of progress.