Living: Onward, Women!

The superwoman is weary, the young are complacent, but feminism is not dead. And, baby, there's still a long way to go

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Feminism has also been the victim of its own extremist rhetoric and a press that was happy to amplify it. Like any young, energetic social movement, feminism had its share of radicals. Groups like SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) made good copy. So did Germaine Greer, who suggested that women be "deliberately promiscuous" and boycott marriage. Bra burning always caught a reader's eye, though none ever took place. (Apparently the closest thing to it occurred at a protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, when women tossed their bras into a trash can.) Friedan admits that in the heat of the battle to liberate the suburban housewife the language often became excessive: "It was literally throw the baby out with the bath water, throw out motherhood." Jong recalls a mood among feminists that was "anticosmetics, anti-lacy underwear."

To be sure, NOW always included in its platform demands for maternity leave, day care and respect for stay-at-home mothers. But even within the feminist movement, there was disagreement over strategy. In Lesser Lives, the Myth of Women's Liberation in America, author Sylvia Ann Hewlett tells how her late-' 70s battle for a maternity policy at Barnard College in New York City was opposed by feminists at the college's own Women's Center. "I was told," she relates, that "if women wanted equality with men they could not ask for special privileges." It was a sentiment often expressed at the peak of the movement, and is still heard in some feminist quarters today.

Such attitudes were more understandable during the early years. If the first women who knocked on the door to the executive suite -- or, for that matter, the firehouse or the construction contractor's office -- had mentioned maternity-leave benefits, the door would have been slammed in their faces. Similarly, the dress-for-success, male-clone look that now seems so ridiculous was a necessary bit of female camouflage for the first infiltrators of the corporate world.

But if feminism won its war, lifting women's status and self-respect, there are still enormous battles ahead and handicaps for American women to overcome. Among them:

The Wage Gap

It is shocking to note that women who work full time still earn only 66 cents to the man's dollar, a difference that has narrowed by less than a dime over the past two decades. One reason: 59% of employed women work in low- paying, "pink-collar" jobs, some because they are trained for nothing else, some because such jobs tend to be more compatible with child rearing. The gap can also be attributed to the relatively recent arrival of women in higher-paying professions and the difficulty they have had in penetrating the so-called glass ceiling, a bias barrier that keeps so many women from moving beyond middle management. Among FORTUNE 500 companies, less than 2% of top executives are female. Harder to explain is the fact that the higher women advance, the larger the wage gap. A May 1987 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that corporate women at the vice-presidential level and above earn 42% less than their male peers.

Divorce and Poverty

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