Politics & Policy

What Women Want — for Real

The new feminism of life as it is really lived.

Could politics end the mommy wars?

What mommy wars, you ask? One short answer is: the ones that make for awkward silences at cocktail parties when a woman is asked what she does and she responds that she raises her children. The feminist revolution would have us believe that’s undignified.

That’s bunk. It always has been.

With the increased media presence of women of all political stripes, especially in politics — as candidates, as tea-party players and participants — that lie is being exposed in a whole new mainstream way, crowding out the delusion of the lamestream (to borrow one woman’s word). Exposing that lie in a reasoned, well-researched, sober way was the goal of a panel presented by the Susan B. Anthony List in Manhattan on the 90th anniversary of the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the constitutional right to vote.

At the heart of the reasonableness of it all was, as moderator Helen Alvaré of George Mason University put it, “women’s lived experience.” You can only mess with reality — and the natural law — for so long before your feminist fantasy is revealed to be misery.

The event, billed as “A Conversation on Pro-Life Feminism,” was both a primer on its existence and an attempt to replace the conventional approach to so-called women’s issues. Women are not and never have been a monolith, period, never mind a monolithic voting bloc.

And it was a real conversation. One aiming for real answers about real life, embracing just that. Not life as Ms. and academy radicals portray it.

W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia got to the heart of this mythological mommy war pitting stay-at-home moms against so-called working moms (I say so-called because they are all actually working), continuing the discussion with me after: “Many in the media and academy think working women are one way, and that stay-at-home wives and mothers are another way. This overlooks the fact that many women who work outside the home would like to work less or not at all. That is, they are working because they feel they have to, not because they want to.

“This is particularly true for women who self-identify as gender traditionalists — who believe men and women are fundamentally different, and that men should focus more on breadwinning and women should focus more on homemaking — or maternalists — who believe that infants and toddlers do best when they are cared for by their mother. It is also more likely to be true for women who have children currently in the home.” 

Where is he getting this alternative to the conventional media/political/cultural understanding of the world? Wilcox bases his analysis on the 2000 National Survey of Marriage and Family Life, which, he explains, “indicates that, among married mothers with children in the home under 18, only 18 percent of married mothers would prefer to work full-time; by contrast, 46 percent would prefer to work part-time, and 36 percent would prefer to stay at home. Clearly, the most popular option for married mothers is part-time work, whereas only about one-fifth of these mothers would prefer to work full time.”

If it becomes tolerable, even in supposedly sophisticated circles, to admit the obvious — that men and women are fundamentally different — those numbers may even increase.

Feminists claim to be all about choice, yet many women in our feminist paradise seem to be doing what they really wouldn’t choose to do, given other options. Most working women would like to work fewer hours and be home with their kids. According to Wilcox, “74 percent of married mothers who are working full-time would prefer to work fewer hours or not at all.”

About half of American women, says Wilcox, are “adaptive”: They “have interests in both work and family, and . . . they seek to scale back their work when they have children in the home — especially infants and toddlers. But when they don’t have children, or their children are older, adaptive women are often interested in working outside the home on a full-time basis. So their orientation to work and family shifts over the life course, and according to the needs of their children.” So they’re not stay-at-home moms or working moms: They’re women who do what’s best for them and their families at a given time. They “don’t fit the standard conservative stay-at-home model or the liberal full-time-working-woman model. For that reason, they are often invisible in media and academic debates about work and family.”

Neither political party, says Wilcox, addresses these issues in a clear way. “This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to poor and working-class families, who are more likely to have wives and mothers working many more hours than they would like to. . . . Poor and working-class families are much more likely to break up than are affluent families, where women have more choices when it comes to juggling work and family,” he says.

Like a woman who goes from the PTA to being mayor of Wasilla? Wilcox does see this adaptiveness in some of the women we’ve been seeing this cycle. He points to Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota, and Michele Bachmann in Minnesota. “These are candidates who have pursued a variety of work-family strategies in their effort to realize their dual commitments to family and public life over the years. And they don’t fit neatly in any boxes,” he says.

Wilcox tells me that “both parties could do a lot more to make it easier for women to realize their ideal work-family strategies by promoting public policies that encourage flexible work arrangements, dramatically expand the child tax credit, and add more off-ramps and on-ramps for women who are seeking to move out of or into the workforce.”

Will this authentic view of womanhood usurp the old political archetypes of what women want? The conversation has begun to rise above self-identified feminists’ assertions as to women’s desires. May it continue and bear fruit. And, whoever wins or loses, this is a whole new playing field in politics, one that more accurately reflects who American women actually are and, yes, what they really want. The American woman wants to annihilate this idea that career is everything. She wants a life. She wants life. And she wants help in being adaptive, not pressure to be something she’s not.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com. This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt it, please contact Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.


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