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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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It is time to recognize that there is no inherently perfect balance of work and family, and that no amount of intensive parenting can take away the sadness of not being with one's children as much as one would like. Children's needs and desires, and parents' needs and desires, are constantly in flux. If we are fortunate, we will be able to adjust our lives in accordance with them; and like any contortion, it will require some stretching, some groaning, and some pain. The tension that we feel is not the problem afflicting mothers in America today. It is the solution.

But such hard-won realism runs counter to feminism's utopian strain, the strain in which every tension in human life can be eliminated and every problem smoothed away--and the strain that was cuttingly described by Joan Didion, writing in feminism's infancy, as "the voices of women scarred not by their class position as women but by the failure of their childhood expectations and misapprehensions." It's this form of feminism, not the practical form that won so many practical victories, that drives the "who-lost-feminism" debate, and keeps alive the peculiar notion that if the woman's movement had only been more successful, if only there hadn't been a "backlash," we wouldn't have to deal with Britney and the Desperate Housewives, Cosmo and Maxim--with men picking up the check and cheating on their wives and marrying their secretaries; with women taking their Ivy League degrees and going into full-time motherhood; with the tension between work and parenthood that affects the lives of career women, for reasons both cultural and biological, far more than the lives their male competitors.

"Little did I realize," Dowd writes, "that the feminist revolution would have the unexpected consequence of intensifying the confusion between the sexes, leaving women in a tangle of dependence and independence as they entered the 21st century."

But surely anyone with an iota of common sense would have predicted exactly this--that a movement aimed at reshaping society would lead to both great goods and unexpected evils, that it would make some women's lives better than ever before and others worse, that its brave new world would be bright and shining and also leave something to be desired. Feminism didn't lose or fail or falter, it won--and if its victory didn't turn out quite the way people expected, well, they should have expected that.

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.