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Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan published her groundbreaking book “The Feminine Mystique.” Diane considers its relevance today and the ongoing debate over gender equality at work and at home.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In 1963, when Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," in some states, women were not allowed to sit on juries. In others, they had to have their husbands' permission before taking a job. Progress toward gender equality has been stunning, but our panel of experts says the work is far from complete.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me: Judith Warner -- she's a columnist for TIME.com -- Michelle Bernard of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, and, joining us by phone from Washington state, Stephanie Coontz. She is professor of family history at Evergreen State College. We invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email, email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MS. MICHELLE BERNARDGood morning.
MS. JUDITH WARNERGood morning.
MS. TERRY O'NEILLGood morning, Diane.
PROF. STEPHANIE COONTZGood morning.
REHMGood to have you with us. Stephanie Coontz, let me begin with you. How far have we come since Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963?
COONTZWell, it's really actually an extraordinary way that we've come. Sometimes when I look at younger women and men and when I tell them what was going on in the '60s, they -- in their point of view, it might as well have been 1396 since 1963. That was a time when there were sex-segregated want ads. You had to go to the help wanted, female. It was perfectly legal to say -- as a New York Times ad did at that time that I read -- you must be really beautiful to get this job. There was no word for sexual harassment, no word for sexism.
COONTZThat college-educated woman working -- when she did get a job, earned less than your average high school dropout in the 1950s, and as late as 1970, less than the average high school graduate. And men have -- there were head-and-master laws as you mentioned in the introduction that gave men the final rights to decision. And my, you know, favorite, if that -- although that's a weird word for favorite, is that the definition of rape, the legal definition of rape was forcible sexual intercourse with a person other than the man's wife.
REHMYou know, that really -- that last one takes my breath away, Stephanie. Remind us why did "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan's book, why did it strike such a chord? Was it the timing? Was it the culture? What was it?
COONTZWell, I think it was that she -- hers was the very first bestseller that took academic and psychological research and things that feminists had been saying around -- behind the scenes for years. She was certainly not the first feminist, but it took them and turned them into a popular -- in words that people who read women's magazines could understand. And it said to these women, you've been sold a bill of goods, and it's a problem with no name.
COONTZBut I've got a name for it. It's "The Feminine Mystique." And that is the set of myths that tell you that women are totally different than men, that they are naturally sexually and intellectually passive, that they'll get all of their meaning and likes to their husband's achievement, and that they are neurotic if they want anything more.
COONTZAnd there was a whole generation of women who bought this who were actually thinking that there was something desperately wrong with them. Some of those people told me -- when I interviewed the women who read the book at the time, several of them told me that halfway through the book, they flushed their tranquilizers down the toilet.
REHMStephanie Coontz, she is the author of "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s." Judith Warner, turning to you, when did you first read "The Feminine Mystique," and what was your reaction?
WARNERWell, I first read it in a course on intellectual history in college, 1986. So it was part of ancient history at that point, even though, in truth, it wasn't really that long before. But it felt like something that belonged to a completely different era. And I have to say, I didn't have a feeling of real connection to it. I think that I rediscovered it then 20, 25 years later when I was looking at the mothers around me, when I'd become a mother and had a very different view of it. At that point, it seemed very, very relevant, still, to how a lot of mothers were setting up their lives today.
REHMAnd why? Tell me why.
WARNERWell, remember, this was a moment about 10 years ago, and it was a time when there was a kind of return to an overvaluation, the sort of total-reality motherhood, the idea that, to be an ideal mother, you would be completely subsumed in your children. And, you know, this was a moment right around the late '90s, the early 2000s where that mode of motherhood was very strong and, you know, strongly defended by a lot of people.
WARNERAnd a lot of the pathologies that Friedan described in "The Feminine Mystique," I felt were coming back in a kind of updated form in women of my generation.
REHMJudith Warner is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She's author of "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" and a columnist for time.com. Michelle Bernard, not all women were totally enthusiastic about Betty Friedan's book.
BERNARDYeah. Absolutely. And I respond to your statement as an African-American woman, regardless of socio-economic status and even pretty much regardless of age group, whether you live through that time period or were just born during that time period, black women, by and large, were actually completely left out of the book written by Betty Friedan.
BERNARDAnd many African-American women -- I don't know if it was as a result of being left out of the book, but it always sort of looked at the word feminism and the title of the book and the contents of the book as almost being frivolous and being sometimes about white women whining about something that African-American women never had the option to whine about.
REHMMichelle, help me to understand how you believe Betty Friedan left out black women.
BERNARDWell, there's no discussion in the book that deals particularly with the working-class black woman during that time period.
REHMSo she was talking about all women but not specifically delineating black women.
BERNARDAbsolutely. So there was -- there has always, I believe, been a feeling in the African-American community that black women have been left out of the feminist movement as a result of being left out of the book. So many black women would say to you, for example, when Betty Friedan discussed, you know, this feeling that didn't have a name, a lot of black women would tell you that they didn't even have the time to wonder whether there was a feeling without a name because you were just trying to survive.
REHMMichelle Bernard is founder and president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. And, Terry O'Neill, tell us a little about Betty Friedan, who she was and what she lived through.
O'NEILLSo Betty Friedan was a leftist. She actually cut her teeth working in the union movement and the leftist movement in the Northeast. She was really, really smart, you know, really brilliant. And her analysis of what was going on with women, I think, was very deeply informed by her activism on the left side of the political spectrum that she had been as a young woman. So she did what a lot of young white women, upper-middle-class women, do today.
O'NEILLThey work in their 20s. Then when they start having babies, they go home. So there's this huge sort of divide. There's work life, which does not involve children, and then there's children, which does not involve paid labor. And that was her experience. And, actually, the book itself was started when she started talking to her classmates from Smith College.
O'NEILLAnd this is where the kind of -- some people have called it myopic. I would say she set out to tell a story about college-educated women, very predominantly white, and it is a very compelling story about those women. And it's a very compelling story, I think, about how pop culture sort of channeled, in those days, women -- white women particularly -- into this kind of picture of what it means to be a woman.
O'NEILLWhat she didn't write about, I think, was so many women because they're African-American or immigrant or Hispanic, Latina or whatever who could never ever qualify as the ideal woman that was being promoted by magazines because the magazines were clearly leaving out those communities.
O'NEILLAnd if Betty Friedan had sort of -- she was -- what she was doing was critiquing those magazines and comparing the white women being projected in those magazines to the white women she knew. And then she was talking about women. But I think it's a valid observation that, you know, that what happened was a lot of women were left feeling that they couldn't possibly ever be female.
REHMTerry O'Neill, she's president of the National Organization for Women. I look forward to hearing your comments, your questions. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Michelle, you've said that not long ago, you didn't even like the word feminism.
BERNARDYeah. And I grapple with it because I am someone who abhors discrimination in any form and since a child have been absolutely obsessed with fighting against racial discrimination, gender discrimination, discrimination on the basis of anything, but there -- and I don't know what it is. And I don't know whether it is a part of being a part of the African-American community or whether it is my age group.
BERNARDBut we, you know, prior to having children, there was something about the word feminism that just felt like that was for my grandmother or my mother. Now that I have children and have been the subject of, quite frankly, very sexist -- whether it's a sexist attitude or grappling with work and family balance, the word doesn't feel -- I don't have the allergy to the word as much as I used to. But I have to say that there's something there.
REHMMichelle Bernard is founder and president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. I'll be fascinated to hear your comments, your questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking basically about how the world has changed since Betty Friedan's book, "The Feminine Mystique," was first published back in 1963. As you've heard, there have been different reactions, different thoughts about how that book reached or did not reach some people first when it came out, and in your case, Judith Warner, much later when it did have an impact. Is the word feminism -- does that somehow, Stephanie Coontz, leave out or sound hostile to the word masculinity?
COONTZTo masculinity? Well, it's interesting. I mean, I think feminism does have some issues for both African-American women and for men, but I don't think that it needs to. I mean, to go back to a point Michelle made, yes, one of the sad things about Betty's book is that she didn't talk about the fact that, you know, these white, educated housewives saying, why do I feel so helpless? I must be -- there must be something wrong with me.
COONTZAnd there were black women who were out there and proving that you could be a good wife, a good mother, a good community activist and a co-provider and respected by your community. So in that sense, that was a tragedy. But she was reaching out to a particular group of women. I think the flipside of "The Feminine Mystique" is a masculine mystique because just as women have been told, this is what's natural to you, being in the home, the masculine mystique is you have to be the bread winner. You're actually not interested.
COONTZLet me -- in 1960 -- in the 1960s, I read a sociologist who was talking about the right, proper division of roles in the household. And he said, now, the man may occasionally feed a bottle to the baby, but a man who wants to do much more than that might -- this is a direct quote -- "might legitimately be suspected of having a little too much inner fat on the thigh." The contempt not just for women, but for men after their desire to be involved in the family is just stunning. And it still persists, too.
REHMBut it has changed a great deal, hasn't it, Judith?
WARNERIt has changed, and yet the pressure is on them to be providers, to be in the workplace to a degree that precludes their being more present at home is still very strong. You have more men than women in some surveys now reporting work-family stress. They want to be more involved at home. But the workweek has expanded greatly. American families are working 10 more hours a week now than they were in 1979. So the pressures are all the greater, both at the high-end and the low-end, to work excessive hours.
WARNERAnd this means, very often in many families, a reversion to traditional sex roles even when people set out wanting to have more of an egalitarian home. When push comes to shove and you're dealing with this demand of a kind of devouring workplace, something has to shift. Someone's got to be home somewhat with the kids. Someone's got to be putting in those hours. And unfortunately, the reversion does tend to fall along traditional lines.
REHMIt's interesting because earlier one of you mentioned the fact that the younger generation may not be as well informed about this whole transition that's occurred and may take certain things for granted. How do you see it, Terry?
O'NEILLOh, I think that's absolutely true, and I think it's a real failure of the education system, from elementary school to middle school to high school. Boys and girls are not being taught the actual history that we live through. In middle school -- my own daughter raised her hand one day when her teacher in social studies said something about, after the civil rights movement, then women got equality in the Constitution.
O'NEILLAnd she raised her hand. She's 12 years old, and she says, my mom says that we didn't get it. And he later told me the story. He said, you know, he says, tell your daughter to ease up on me.
REHMWhat do you think, Michelle? Is it a failure on our part as women to ensure that younger women understand the long history, the long road that we've had to come to get to where we may be now, which still leaves a lot to be desired?
BERNARDAbsolutely. And I say this again, it's in the women's movement. It is in the civil rights movement. It's not just incumbent upon our educational institutions to teach our history, but it is incumbent upon us as parents. And I say that as a mother, but I also say that fathers need to do the same thing. We -- children, they don't understand where we can go, how the country can go backwards if they don't understand our history.
BERNARDSo, for example, this last presidential campaign, if we look back to the things that were heard being discussed about women's lives, whether it was women in the workplace -- the state senator in Wisconsin, whose name I cannot remember right now, who made a statement that one could argue that money -- making money is more important to men than it is to women. That is something that happened just in 2012.
BERNARDBut that's a statement you would've thought you would've heard in the 1950s or 1960s, discussion about aspirin between the legs as an appropriate method of birth control. And young girls, if they don't understand our history, they don't understand that, at some times, there is a concerted effort to take the lives of women and to take the lives of other minorities back to a place that we thought we left 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.
REHMJudith Warner, you are certainly part of a generation that believed you could have it all, and it would all work out. What did you mean?
WARNERWhat I meant was that we had the privilege of cluelessness. So much had been accomplished for us. We didn't fight those battles. We inherited the benefits of what the women who had come before us had done. And we somehow thought things were accomplished, and we could focus on our own individual goals.
WARNERAnd coming back to what Michelle was saying before in terms of what you were asking, in terms of sort of where do we put the fault, who failed, why are younger women not engaged in this in the first place, I think there has been a failure in our culture, in our political system and among my generation of women.
WARNERWe've allowed a shift to happen, and it happened politically where there has been a backing off from collective ideas of social responsibility to a privatization of everything. And as women, we've allowed these questions of public interest, public responsibility for families, for equal pay, for continuing the fights of the women's movement to become individual issues of women who need to work things out for themselves.
REHMYou know, Stephanie, I can recall early on in political discussions about day care for children or home care for families or the work-family decisions, that it was all feminine stuff, that it did not enter into political discourse, and, now, look at health care as one of the number one issues.
COONTZWell, I -- sorry. I totally agree with Judy that this backing away from collective action is so -- has been so damaging. People forget that in 1971, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive child care bill. And Nixon vetoed it because he said that it would socialize -- you know, the old socialist rhetoric -- that it would be -- it would socialize the rearing of our children. But we came close. And then we did pass the Family and Medical Leave Act back in 1993.
COONTZBut that only covered 50 percent of workers about, and it gave them unpaid leave. Since that time, all of our allies around the world have instituted child care, parental leaves, paid maternity leaves. There's us and about eight little islands around the country that don't have paid maternity leave. Eighty-one countries have paternity leave so that men can get involved, too. America has just been in standstill for the past 20 years, and it's no wonder that young women look around and say, well, what I can do but stay home?
REHMHow is it different for African-American women?
BERNARDIt is different, but it is also the same. I think what you see -- depending on your socioeconomic level. So, you know, in the African-American community, we will say, for example, if you have a cold, I have the flu. So if you are, for example, low-income to a moderate-income African-American family or you are a single mother, when the recession hit, it hit the African-American community even harder.
BERNARDSo we have seen unemployment rates in the African-American community anywhere from 16 to 20 percent depending on a state that you live in. If you do not have child care, I think one of the things that we saw not only in the African-American community but in the nation at large is that's when people started saying, the recession has hit. I can't survive as a single income family.
BERNARDAnd if my wife or if the husband has to go out of the house to work outside of the home, what are we going to do about child care? And I think, because we saw this happening as a result of an economic downturn versus for other reasons, I think our male colleagues and counterparts across the country have begun to say, wow, maybe we really do need to do something about child care. Whether privately or through the government, something needs to be done because our families can't survive without two wage earners in the home.
REHMTerry O'Neill, talk about the professional lives of women. What is it that makes them drop out of, say, a law firm, and then how can they get back in? What happens?
O'NEILLYou know, the law firms, like the firms on Wall Street, like accounting firms and consulting firms, are very high pressure. They're very intense. And they have systematically failed to accommodate the needs of people with kids and with family lives. I can't tell you the number of -- when I was teaching law at Tulane, number of graduated students who would come back.
O'NEILLThey were all female and saying to me, you know, Prof. O'Neill, I'm giving up. I am not welcome here. I can't make this work. It's not OK with me, and I'm just going to drop out. That is -- and that explains why for a very long time, we've had 50 percent or more of law school graduates are women. But if you look at the top leadership of the top law firms, very few of them are women.
REHMHow about the Fortune 500 companies?
O'NEILLCEOs, 3 percent are women. In the Fortune 500 or Fortune 1000 companies, only about 15 percent of the C-suite as they call it -- the CEO, the CIO, CFO and so forth -- 15 percent are women, but only 1 percent are women of color. So there has been a collective failure. And I think it's very important for us to understand that accompanying the sense that women have that each of them, it's their own individual problem, we also have a total blindness to the collective action that is happening in boards of directors all around the country.
O'NEILLThese boards of directors are very interconnected. And they know each other. They certainly play golf together. And let's be clear. In the -- since the early 1990s, the ratio of CEO pay to ordinary worker pay has gone from something like 30 or 50 times, depending on how you count it, to 300 times or more. And let's -- so 97 percent of them are benefiting.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to the phones here, 800-433-8850, first to Hilde in Fairfax, Va. Good morning to you.
HILDE CARENGood morning, Diane. I am particularly interested in this exchange. I was Betty Friedan's personal assistant until she died. And I am interested in talking about why she wrote this book.
CARENAnd certainly, at -- she was not excluding African-Americans. We like to remember that she was writing this book from her own experience...
CAREN...a woman who was brilliant -- I know that firsthand -- knew a lot of her associates, including men who said that she was a brilliant student, and then she did -- she was a writer. And she began to write. But because she was a woman, she couldn't get her articles published by any of the big magazines because they all pretty much related to women's problems that were not acceptable. And then when she got a job, she was fired because she got pregnant. And so she began to think about, here I am. I have a degree. I have all of this within me to share, but I can't do it.
REHMIt's really interesting to hear that kind of history, the notion that she did not, in any way, intend to exclude African-American women. Stephanie Coontz, you're shaking your head.
COONTZWell, I think it's a more complicated story than that. And when I first went back to the book, I really disliked it because she did exclude African-American women, and it was not because of lack of knowledge. As Terry pointed out, she had been an activist. She had helped organize the strike to win higher wages for the housekeepers who worked in the dorms at Smith College. She was very active in desegregating housing.
COONTZBut she made a decision at a certain point to focus on one group of women, the group of women that she had begun in her second career, after she stopped being a labor writer, to write for the women's magazines. And my first reaction honestly, Diane, was, you know, to dislike the book, but the more I read it, the more I realized, you know, we don't have to make a total hierarchy. She was talking to a particular group of women stuck between two worlds, who were educated. They were a new group of women.
COONTZThey'd been given just enough education to know that there was something else in life, and then they were told never use that education again outside of the home. And they were feeling miserable. And she told them, you don't have to feel miserable. That's not the whole women's movement, but it's worth noting that when she went on to found the National Organization for Women, she co-write the statement of principles with that wonderful African-American feminist lawyer Pauli Murray. And she did move on from that.
O'NEILLYeah. I also think it's important to recognize that in the time that she was writing in 1963 where the Voting Rights Act doesn't get passed until 1965, the Civil Rights Act is 1964, so all of the civil rights movement is very active at the time that she is writing that.
O'NEILLAnd yet what we were -- I think what the United States was experiencing in those days was that -- and Dorothy Roberts has talked about this, the legal scholar, that the system of sexism, if you will, was designed sort of to reinforce the system of racism. They worked together to separate white women from African-American women as living in two different communities that could never get together.
REHMTerry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd as we continue to talk about how the world has moved on since Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" 50 years ago, let's go to Venice, Fla. Good morning, Judith. You're on the air.
JUDITHGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
JUDITHI wanted to talk a little bit about working-class women, and particularly white women, in the 1950s because they were left out of Betty Friedan's book as well. And my mom and her aunt, my aunts, were very capable women who didn't get to go to college. But they did wind up running the businesses where they worked, and they didn't get paid for it. And they didn't get credit for it.
JUDITHWhen I graduated in 1963 from college, I had three career choices: secretary, nurse or teacher. I became a teacher. I eventually went on to get into the business world, and I became CEO of a small company. But things are very slow in changing for women, and I still feel that it's very much a socio-economic issue. I recognize the trial and tribulations of black women, but I feel like it really affects women of working class families.
REHMThanks for calling.
BERNARDAbsolutely. And one of the many critiques that you will see of the book, it's not just that black women were excluded from the book, but also working-class women of all races were excluded from the books and the lives that they led. And it was very similar what we -- to what we saw after World War II when so many men were at war, and you saw women who went into the workplace. And then their husbands or their partners came back, and you were left with nothing but to go back to the life that you had before then.
BERNARDAnd I think one of the fallouts that we see from "The Feminine Mystique" 50 years later are working-class women who felt left out of the feminist movement in the sense that Betty Friedan's book has been largely credited with starting second wave feminism. And so there were a whole group of women who sat back and said, but what about me? My life is important. I have challenges also. Who is going to be my voice in this movement?
REHMAnd here's an email from Valerie with a different set of questions: "What do you think about college educated women not using their degrees after they had children? Seems as though lots of women are making a choice to stay at home when they have kids. Do they have conversations with women who left their jobs and then later regretted it?" Stephanie.
COONTZWell, as a matter of fact, it's important to note that the very biggest single group -- the only part of the population where opt-out moms, women -- stay-at-home mothers are a majority are among women married to men earning the lowest 25 percent of the income distribution. So a lot of the women who are staying home are staying home because they can't get jobs to pay enough to cover their child care even though their family would need the money.
COONTZThe next highest group is among women married to the top 5 percent of the population, and that's who I think your writer is talking about. And they often are a better predictor of their dropping out than just having children is their husbands working such long work hours as we were talking about early. And I think it was Judie who pointed out that you just can't run a family when you've got a 70-hour work week.
COONTZBut, yes, they are facing some of the same problems that Betty did, and I think that one of the ways they try to cope with it is, as Judie said, to put that -- to professionalize motherhood. Whereas Betty's generation was told to professionalize cleaning your house, we've been told to professionalize raising our kids.
REHMAll right. To Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, Jessica.
JESSICAHello, everyone. Thank you for having me on.
JESSICAI just wanted to make a comment contrasting today's conversation with the previous one you had about Millennials. I'm 28, and I consider myself a feminist. And one thing that I'm picking up in the tone of the conversation is that there's one way to be a woman a little bit in hearing about the activism and the lack of activism in the millennial generation or the pursuit of interest. I just feel like, for a woman of my age, we're not given a space to kind of embrace everything that we want to do.
JESSICAFor instance, made to feel ashamed for, you know, wanting the home life, wanting the more traditional "role for a woman." And I think maybe that's the biggest tension that I'm hearing between new generations of women is that the thing that we've done, I think, as feminists is create space. But there's still that tension between basically accepting, you know, the choices that women make that we may not agree with going forward.
WARNERI -- you know, you hear this a lot, and you hear it in different age groups depending on what phase of life a woman is in. When I was talking to women 10 years ago who had made the decision to stay home with their kids for a while, many would express exactly what your caller just said, that they felt that that mode of living wasn't validated. I'm talking to -- I've spent the past year talking to a lot of women who were out of the workforce for quite a while, sort of seeing where they are now and what happened to them.
WARNERMost are either back in or trying to get back in with difficulty and don't have that feeling anymore about what they did not having been validated. And I think that women have a very hard time standing by what they do whatever it is and somehow feeling that the external validators they need aren't coming to them. I don't actually believe that our culture doesn't validate value, the domestic arts or being at home.
WARNERCertainly, there's a lot of money made off of it, and there's a certain amount of rhetoric still around it. I think that changed somewhat because of the recession. It wasn't really possible to say anymore that the highest possible calling was to be home with your children. But, unfortunately, I've never been able to agree with your caller that there is a message coming from older women, let's say, or from society at large that choosing to be with your children is not something valid to do.
BERNARDI agree with Judie. I hear it all the time also from young women depending on age range. And one of the things that I always say is the greatest thing about the feminist movement was that it gave us the ability to choose.
REHMTo make the choice.
BERNARDHow lucky are you if you are in a position to be able to say, I am going to be a stay-at-home mother...
BERNARD...whether for -- whether until my children are 18, or they're 3 or 4, 5 or 6. That's wonderful. I think one of the things that we feel, or at least I feel -- I'll talk for my perspective only as a mother who has both a son and a daughter -- is that I feel like we, as mothers and fathers, we have a moral obligation to explain to our children that motherhood and being a woman, it's not a sprint.
BERNARDYour life is going to be a marathon, and here are the consequences that you could face depending on what choices you make in life. Re-entry into workforce is not always easy. Sometimes marriages fail. Don't we want to be able to say to our daughters, it's wonderful if you're in a position to make that decision? But what happens if your marriage or your partnership fails? I want you to always be able to be self-reliant.
COONTZWell, I think, though, this raises a real challenge to the women's movement, and it comes back to something you raised earlier, Diane, about how does this affect men. When we say women should have the right to choose, we are essentially denying men the right to choose. And I think that one of the big challenges for the feminist movement today is to make people understand.
COONTZAnd I think this is one of the reasons we have trouble communicating with the younger generation where men and women feel closer and feel less adversarial than we had feel back in the '60s. We have to understand that this is in favor of men's right to choose, too, of men's right to be involved, that we are just as concerned about men losing their jobs as we are about women.
O'NEILLYeah. And I also think that we need to -- as we celebrate the idea of being able to make these choices, we also need to be very clear right about the constraints on the choices that we have before us. It's kind of sad to say while you have this choice to go home -- to stay home because you don't have child care available to you. It's a terrifying statistic that Stephanie made earlier that the largest number of women choosing to stay home are in the lowest socioeconomic level. They are struggling.
O'NEILLIn fact, more than half of women today are either the sole support of their family or an essential support of their family. So when she has to drop out of the workforce, they're going to have a hard time making rent. They have to go to a neighborhood that maybe the schools aren't as good. It is a very bad array of choices for many women to say, well, I'm going to, you know, instead of having this crummy job that doesn't pay well and has no child care, I'll just stay home. But it's not always great.
REHMTerry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Syracuse, N.Y. Hi, Victoria. You're on the air.
VICTORIAHi, Diane. Thank you.
VICTORIAA quick question for your panel. And I am 30 years old. I'm a first-time mother. My son is almost 2, and I'm also a full-time working woman. And my family, we're upper-middle class. We depend on my income. And it hasn't been until after I had my son that I realized, you know, we can't have it all. I can't be in both places at once. And I think that certain things that we could do as a country, things like better maternity pay, things like socialized child care or better child care, would benefit everyone from those upper-middle classes all the way down to the working class.
VICTORIAThe lower socioeconomic working-class families that have 2 part-time jobs don't even qualify for FMLA and are forced to go back to work as soon as possible. So, I guess, you know, as someone who considers themselves a feminist, I'd love to ask your panel, what can we do? What's out there? What is the next step for us as...
WARNERI really think that's the essential question because it's true that feminism opened the door to being able to say women should have all of the choices available to them. But as a society, we failed to follow through on that promise. We haven't changed our structures in order to make those choices a lived reality for women, or for men for that matter, as Stephanie was saying before. And there are so many things we do not have that other countries have: paid family leave, affordable child care, a longer school day, a longer school year. There is so much work to be done.
WARNERAnd, fortunately, we can hope this year that Congress will take up paid family leave legislation. We can be heartened by the fact that President Obama called for pre-K for all in his State of the Union Address. We are at a moment right now where it seems that there is a greater receptivity to some collective solutions that could really make these choices a reality for women at all income levels.
REHMQuestion is: where is the money going to come from for universal pre-K for, you know, all these things that would make everyone's life better? Terry.
O'NEILLThere's a number of ways you can get the money. First, a reduced income inequality. If you increased the minimum wage, you have more income going to people at the lowest level. They're paying more income taxes.
REHMAnother political battle, Terry?
O'NEILLWell, yes, but, you know, that's -- I think that as we're looking at the kinds of things that the government can do, I think, what I'd like to see is goals, reduce income inequality. The CEO to ordinary worker pay is outrageous and needs to come down. We also need to look at -- as a country, let's set goals for reducing wealth inequality across racial lines. It is jaw dropping.
O'NEILLThe -- just to give you -- the single women who are white, over 18, their median net worth is something like 41,500, if they're white. But African-American women, it is 100. Latinas, 120. It was a report that came out in 2010. It's not acceptable, and what we need to do is not only have laws that we think will help but let's set some serious goals and say, this kind of inequality has -- is not American.
COONTZWell, we also have to see these issues as not feminist issues, not women's issues, not just parents' issues. There's more people spending time and energy taking care of aging parents than there are young pre-schoolers. Every single American has a stake in getting more help combining work and family life. And so we should see this as a real human rights issue.
COONTZUnfortunately, the way the society works is its almost the opposite the way a good family would work, which always makes me laugh when I hear social conservatives, pro-family people say, just, oh, let's everybody give everybody tax breaks. You wouldn't do that in your house. You brought new income, and you wouldn't say, I'm going to give everybody $5 of it. You'd say, how can we invest this money in a new house, in education, in better neighborhood that serves the whole family? And that's what our society needs to do.
REHMMichelle, you actually left a law firm.
REHMDo you wish you had stayed?
BERNARDNo. Absolutely not. And I always -- I make jokes that I'm recovering attorney and never ever thought that I would do anything but practice law. I was privileged and honored to make partner in my law firm. And I remember being a young graduate from law school and hearing stories from one of the few female partners in my firm at that time, that when she graduated from law school, she was only allowed to practice law in her law firm if her client was her husband's business.
BERNARDAnd that is how she practiced law. And as a young student, we were thinking, oh, that's the Dark Ages, and you're going along in your own partnership track. And then you hear people make jokes to the women who are terrified to come into work late because they have a sick child and they have to go to the pediatrician. And you would hear jokes like, well, don't you have a wife to take your child to the pediatrician? Don't you have a wife to pick up your dry cleaning for you?
BERNARDAnd there was disparity in the incomes that you saw between women and male partners in law firms. Not all of that is why I left. I left because I made a conscious decision that I needed to leave in order to have a family. I was practicing international law. I'm taking malaria pills and shots. And I just thought, I'm not going to have a family if I continue to live like that.
BERNARDSo it was a personal decision for me, but it's also one that I, in no way, regret. But even today, you hear stories from women who are partners in major law firms that are "part-time," meaning that they take off on Fridays but they're still working on Fridays and they are paid so much less even though they are still for the most part full-time workers in their law practice.
REHMThere does seem to be so much left to do, Judith.
WARNERThere is so much left to do. And as a society, we have to come together and do it. And we have to remember that these are not elite women's issues, the way they're so often framed. These are issues that are felt by women and families all up and down the income spectrum that tend to affect people universally even if in slightly different ways.
REHMDo you think, Terry, we really are going to get to a place of equality?
O'NEILLI do. You know, I think one of the ironic outcomes of the war on women that was so much in the media leading up to the 2012 elections is that people have suddenly served -- set up and take a notice. And the men are saying, this inequality in pay is ridiculous.
REHMTerry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, Michelle Bernard, president and founder of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, Judith Warner of the Center for American Progress, Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring." Thank you all so much. Let's hope that the future holds good things for men and women. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman and Lisa Dunn. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones.
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