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Jewish World Review March 27, 2000/ 20 Adar II, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Report from the 'feminist' frontlines --
THE SYMPOSIUM I attended in New York City last week was called "Changing Nature of Work and Family Life: A Focus on Men," and was sponsored by the Cornell University Institute for Women and Work as part of its "New Paradigm Project." The room was packed mostly with women, which could be taken to mean that men don't care for family life; it may also have been due to the event being advertised as part of Women's History Month.

While there was some talk of the prejudice encountered by involved fathers, who are often seen as slackers and mere "babysitters" to their children, most of the speakers seemed anxious to affirm that the real problems are still the ones confronting women.

Betty Holcomb, author of Not Guilty: The Good News About Working Mothers, said that focusing on men was all right, but the real goal was "a shift in power": women were still seeking social justice, men still had to "give up privilege."

Maybe setting up men as the oppressors is not a good way to help men and women work together to balance work and family. But Holcomb clearly thought that men and women solving these problems together was not the way to go.

"The core problem," she proclaimed, "is that we are still thinking of all these work-family issues as personal issues."

Aren't family and child-rearing pretty personal? Not, apparently, to most of this panel. Holcomb declared that only "collective action and collective bargaining" would do. She was echoed by the star speaker, writer and activist Betty Friedan, often described as the mother of modern feminism.

I have long admired Friedan for her insistence that rejecting the imposition of traditional roles did not mean rejecting family or hating men, and for speaking out against the "sex/class warfare" politics that had taken over the movement. Alas, she is wedded to the mentality that sees government as the ultimate -- and often coercive -- solution to our problems.

Friedan proclaimed that the lack of national child care in the U.S. was "outrageous" and that getting such a program established, maybe by executive order from the President, should be a top political priority. She advocated "compulsory preschool" starting at two years and maybe even six months. And when James Levine of the Fatherhood Project countered that many working parents don't want institutional day care -- at a recent United Auto Workers convention in Detroit, many workers told him they took paint to arrange their schedules so someone could always be home with the kids -- Friedan wouldn't budge.

Actually, polls show that 60% of American women think the best way to help women balance work and family is for men to do more housework and child care; day care gets only 26% of the vote. Yet, as family issues consultant Dana Friedman conceded on the panel, many women inhibit male involvement by protecting their turf, sending the signal that men can't do anything right at home, and setting themselves up as "gatekeepers" of the father-child relationship.

In fact, a degree of such "female chauvinism" was in evidence at the event itself. When Friedman mentioned a poll in which 60% of fathers said they shared equally in child-rearing, laughter rippled through the room -- turning to gleeful guffaws when she added that only 19% of mothers agree. Maybe men exaggerate, but isn't it possible that women aren't totally objective judges, either?

Then, moderator Francine Moccio said that she wanted to speak up in favor of "maternal gatekeeping." Twenty years ago, her husband was supposed to pick up the kids from a party -- and simply forgot. "So," she summed up, "they do need to be trained." Again, there was roaring laughter. I wondered if the women were expressing their frustration over men's failure to share equally in the domestic realm, or taking pleasure in their presumed superiority in that realm. Can one imagine men today gloating similarly over a woman's incompetence in some traditionally male sphere?

Maybe the panel illuminated some of the barriers to men's involvement in family life in ways the organizers never intended.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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