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Has Feminism Failed?

Maureen Dowd thinks so. She's wrong.

11:00 PM, Nov 3, 2005 • By ROSS DOUTHAT
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There's more: today's women are dramatically better-educated than men, something that would have been unthinkable half a century ago, and by nearly every available metric, the young female of the species is healthier than the young male--less prone to suicide, drug addiction, and alcoholism, better-adjusted and higher-achieving, more ambitious and happier. Even sports, the most guy-ish of all the guy things, has been overrun by women--thanks in no small part to a feminist-inspired legal apparatus devoted to leveling the playing field in colleges and universities, even if it means bulldozing successful male athletic programs in the process.

And women have achieved all this while shaking off much--though not all, admittedly--of the old sexual double standard. Yesterday's sluts are today's healthy, empowered young women, today's sluts are celebrities (insert obligatory Paris Hilton joke here), and even the raunchiest guy-magazines take time out from the leering and the dirty jokes to instruct readers on how to satisfy their girlfriends in bed.

In the marriage market, too, despite what Dowd claims, women are facing less of a choice between love and self-improvement than ever before. She cites, for instance, a much-quoted study showing that women's marriage chances drop as their IQs rise. But she fails to mention--understandably, since it tended to be ignored by the breathless press reports--that the study was conducted on a population of women born in 1930s Great Britain. More up-to-date analyses suggest that the trend is moving in the opposite direction, and highly-educated women are considerably more likely to get married than in the past. A recent study noted that in 1980, a woman in her early forties with 19 years of education under her belt (i.e., a college degree and some graduate work) had just a 66 percent chance of being married, whereas a fortysomething female who left school after high school had an 83 percent chance of wedlock. But today the gap has disappeared: highly-educated women are just as likely to wed as the secretaries, nannies, flight attendants and "upstairs maids" that Dowd is convinced are poaching all the men.

OF COURSE, some of these highly-educated brides may be dumped eventually, during their hubby's midlife crisis, for a bright young fact-checker. But this points to the problem with nearly all the "what-happened-to-feminism?" arguments--they ignore the extent to which the problems post-feminist women face aren't the result of feminism's failure, but byproducts of its success. The "trophy wife" phenomenon is a case in point. Feminists wanted women to be able to leave loveless marriages and escape abusive husbands, so they backed the push for easy divorce--and sure enough, no-fault split-ups have made it easier for women to shake free of miserable unions. But they've also made it much, much easier for Woody to leave Mia and shack up with Soon-Yi.

Similarly, Dowd laments the coarsening of American sexual culture--the piggishness of men's magazines, the Cosmo features urging women to "lace a glazed doughnut around your man's member, then gently nibble the pastry and lick the icing," the pressure on women to become "self-actualized sex kittens." But these excesses don't suggest that feminism has failed--just that its victory came with certain (fairly predictable) side-effects. Those sober feminists in turtlenecks wanted sexual equality, where a woman could be as free with her body, as sexually empowered, as any man. Well, they got it--and it's unfortunate, but probably unavoidable, than many of the liberated women have ditched the turtlenecks and decided to behave, as the title of a recent book would have it, like Female Chauvinist Pigs. And it's similarly predictable that sexual liberation has been a much better deal for the women of Dowd's class, the urban upper-bourgeoisie, than for the growing ranks of single mothers further down the income ladder.

Even the work-life difficulties that a book like Perfect Madness decried--and that Dowd touches on, briefly, when she complains that high-achieving men are more likely to have kids than high-achieving women--exist precisely because feminism has succeeded so dramatically at integrating women into the workforce. Once there, many of them discovered that it was next-to-impossible to be a perfect mother and have a perfect career. But is this tension really a "problem" that feminism failed to fix? As Ruth Franklin sensibly wrote in a New Republic review of Judith Warner's book: