As 2013 comes to a close, it’s worth looking back at four significant moments for women from the past year. They reveal not only how far women in the West have come politically and professionally, but also what challenges modern feminism has yielded.
In early 2013, Pauline Friedman Phillips, also known as Abigail Van Buren, passed away at the age of 94, after providing readers with straightforward advice for more than half a century in her “Dear Abby” column. In our brave new world of gender equality, in which women and men are increasingly encouraged to behave the same, Dear Abby is perhaps more needed today than ever before. For decades she encouraged high standards, morality, and the importance of gender roles. In the world of Dear Abby, personal responsibility was viewed not as a hardship but as a virtue; and social mores were not seen as anachronistic but as “a measure of respect and courtesy.”
What sets Dear Abby apart is that she could see the virtue of change — her positive voice was one of balance. She offered readers who were grappling with a rapidly and radically changing world advice about how to navigate difficult situations related to dating, sex, and marriage. But what she may have understood best was that cultural norms will inevitably evolve, and that change is never an unadulterated good, nor an unmitigated disaster.
Perhaps trying to fill the void left by Dear Abby, a new advice-wielding grande dame emerged in 2013, Sheryl Sandberg with her book Lean In. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, had been building a following for several years, and Lean In, published last March, is a thoughtful assessment of women in the workplace. Sandberg’s goal over the past few years has not been to offer public-policy prescriptions or lament workplace culture; instead she has focused on how women can better help themselves succeed in the professional arena — a “self-help style of modern feminism.”
Since the release of Lean In, Sandberg no doubt shifted left — perhaps that sells more books — becoming taken with traditional feminist programming, including the myth of the wage gap. Still, she continued to make interesting observations about female behavior and gender differences and has offered solid advice, imploring women to take a seat at the table, negotiate their salaries, and not leave the workplace prematurely.
Perhaps what was most interesting about the Lean In phenomenon, however, was not what Sandberg was saying, but what feminists on the left were saying about her. While Sandberg sees women as having the “agency” only women’s-studies professors could dream of, many on the left bashed her as elitist and out-of-touch. Perhaps. Lean In puts into sharp relief the fact that despite women’s success, men and women often still have different goals. Women value the many choices they have today to work full-time, part-time, or some combination, but many won’t choose to be on the fast track to the C-suite. It’s not that women lose all professional aspirations once they have families; it’s simply that they have a different balance of priorities.
At the same time that Sandberg was rising in popularity, we lost a female trailblazer when Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become prime minister of Britain, died of a stroke at age 87. Thatcher is revered by the Right for her market-focused economic policies — such as deregulation, a flexible labor market, and increased privatization — as well as for her close relationship to President Ronald Reagan and their shared opposition to Communism. During the peak of her career, feminists on the left reviled Thatcher; but, as Christina Hoff Sommers wrote in the days immediately following her death, Thatcher should be viewed as a role model for women and men alike.
She benefited from an education in laissez-faire economics from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek, but was, as Sommers writes, “at least equally inspired by what we may call home economics — the homespun bourgeois aphorisms she had learned as a child.” Today, as American politics seems to be obsessed with women — women running for office, a war on women, a women’s agenda — Thatcher is a reminder that women’s priorities and values will never be one-dimensional.
Finally, while it pales in comparison with the loss of Thatcher, Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in late August deserves our attention. Within minutes, Cyrus made international news for her sexual tongue moves, “twerking,” and almost non-existent costume. Her performance was repulsive to many not because we’re a country of Puritans, but because it emphasized just how confused the feminist movement has become.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s intended to draw attention away from women’s bodies and redirect the conversation to our minds and ambitions. In fact, feminists like Betty Friedan focused on undermining femininity and devaluing dating and marriage. Feminist icons like Erica Jong and Gloria Steinem viewed these traditional institutions as a modern form of societal imprisonment, forcing women to focus entirely on their bodies and their roles as mothers and wives, rather than on their intellect and value outside of the home.
But in all the gyrating and stripping, Cyrus revealed not only a deep irony, but also a tremendous loss. For too many young women, they’ve forgotten — or have never been taught — what modern feminism claims to be all about.
2013 puts a spotlight on the limitations of modern feminism. Though women have won tremendous educational, professional, and sexual freedom in recent decades, we are seeing that this freedom doesn’t come without its challenges. As Dear Abby understood — but Miley Cyrus does not — the sexual revolution, which was supposed to leave women feeling empowered, often leaves women feeling (and looking) powerless. Similarly, the struggle persists for women to find a balance between work and home, strength and femininity. Thatcher showed us it didn’t have to be an either/or, and today Sandberg instructs women to take control over their choices. The independence and real feminism Thatcher and Sandberg represent fly in the face of the collective activism and gender-based politics of traditional feminism. Perhaps as we ring in the New Year, it will also be a new dawn for feminism.
— Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.