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It's not that we were wrong back in the salad days of feminism about the existence of nurturant "feminine values." If anything, women have more distinctive views as a sex than they did 20 years ago. The gender gap first appeared in the presidential election of 1980, with women voting on the more liberal side. Recent polls show that women are more likely to favor social spending for the poor and to believe it's "very important" to work "for the betterment of American society."
So why haven't our women pioneers made more of a mark? Charitably speaking, it may be too soon to expect vast transformations. For one thing, women in elite, fast-track positions are still pathetically scarce. FORTUNE magazine found this past July that in the highest echelons of corporate managers, fewer than one-half of 1% are female. Then there's the exhaustion factor. Women are far more likely to work a "double day" of career plus homemaking. The hand that rocks the cradle -- and cradles the phone, and sweeps the floor, and writes the memo and meets the deadline -- doesn't have time to reach out and save the world.
But I fear, too, that women may be losing the idealistic vision that helped inspire feminism in the first place. Granted, every Out group -- whether defined by race, ethnicity or sexual preference -- seeks assimilation as a first priority. But every Out group carries with it a critical perspective, forged in the painful experiences of rejection and marginalization. When that perspective is lost or forgotten, a movement stands in danger of degenerating into a scramble for personal advancement. We applaud the winners and pray that their numbers increase, but the majority will still be found far outside the gates of privilege, waiting for the movement to start up again.
And for all the pioneering that brave and ambitious women have done, the female majority remains outside, earning 70 cents to the man's $1 in stereotypically female jobs. That female majority must still find a way to survive the uncaring institutions, the exploitative employers and the deep social inequities the successful few have not yet got around to challenging.
Maybe, now that women have got a foot in the door, it's time to pause and figure out what we intend to do when we get inside. Equality with men is a fine ambition, and I'll fight for any woman's right to do any foolish or benighted thing that men are paid and honored for. But ultimately, assimilation is just not good enough. As one vintage feminist T shirt used to say, IF YOU THINK EQUALITY IS THE GOAL . . . YOUR STANDARDS ARE TOO LOW.