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A Lesser Life THE MYTH OF WOMEN'S LIBERATION IN AMERICA by Sylvia Ann Hewlett Ph.D. (Morrow: $16.95; 256 pp.)

March 30, 1986|Elaine Kendall

The myth is in tatters long before the end of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's fierce denunciation of women's liberation, American style. Trained as an economist first at Cambridge University, then at Harvard, now living and working in the United States, Hewlett is married and the mother of three children under 10. Evaluating the chasm between the illusion and reality of equality, she has thoroughly researched the status of contemporary women in France, Sweden, England and Italy. From this broad perspective, she compares the goals and achievements of the various movements abroad with the American counterpart, finding the differences not only vast but pernicious.

While the American activists have emphasized sexual freedom and individual autonomy, the Europeans have concentrated upon support systems and enlightened social legislation enabling women successfully to combine motherhood and work. Americans "have so arranged life that a man may have a home, a family, love, companionship, domesticity, and fatherhood, yet remain an active citizen; a woman must 'choose'; either live alone, unloved, unaccompanied, uncared for, homeless, childless, with her work in the world for sole consolation, or give up all world service for the joys of love, motherhood and domestic service." Although those particular words were written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1897, Hewlett finds them bleakly applicable today, after nearly a century of agitation, rhetoric and ill-deserved self-congratulation. According to Hewlett, "Motherhood is the problem modern feminists cannot face," and she has marshalled an impressive array of hard evidence to prove her point.

In countries where the liberation movement has been far less dramatic or strident, the gains have been considerably more significant--extended maternity leaves, convenient and well-functioning nurseries, job guarantees for women returning to the work force, and a smaller discrepancy between the salaries paid to men and women for equivalent work. By itself, our vaunted "equality" is a snare and delusion. Without additional benefits provided elsewhere by industries and the state, women cannot take advantage of their opportunities unless they remain childless. While other countries recognize that the perpetuation of their society depends not only upon children but upon the quality of life available to the next generation, American government and American industry continue to ignore these special needs. The result is a troubled society in which capable, well-educated and ambitious women are penalized for having babies while the less competent are compensated by the state for reproducing. Our rapidly escalating divorce rate, now approaching a ratio of 2 out of 3 marriages, exacerbates matters still further. As Hewlett repeatedly states, after divorce, a woman's income often drops by as much as 70%, while the man's income increases; 60% of divorced fathers contribute nothing whatever to the support of their children. Despite the recent hullabaloo about joint arrangements and publicity given to fathers clamoring for child custody, 9 out of 10 children of divorced parents live with their mothers. "No fault" divorce means alimony is obsolete. Since there is no longer a guilty party who must atone for his or her derelictions with a financial penalty, the discarded spouse is often left with only half the proceeds from the sale of community property; a sum rarely sufficient to cover the continuing demands made upon it. When the person is a man unencumbered by the responsibility of daily child care, there are no barriers to his continued occupational advancement. Women are less fortunate. If motherhood has not already interrupted their careers and put them back to square one, it will now. If they had no unique or special marketable skills, they will have to take whatever low-paying work they can get. There is no way such women can compete successfully with younger people able to manage on lower salaries. Even assuming the divorced woman has valuable occupational qualifications, the American wage differential means she will be earning 65 cents to a man's dollar, out of which she will have to pay for the care of her children while she works. While there are wage gaps in the other societies Hewlett examines, the services and benefits provided are far more extensive. Moreover, marriages seem more stable in those countries where motherhood is encouraged; where women can pursue a career or even take an ordinary job without depriving their children of proper attention; where "choice" doesn't mean either work or a family but a satisfactory combination of both. The divorce rate, which tends to increase according to stress, frustration and anxiety, is dramatically lower in every country Hewlett has visited.

Though her argument is often redundant and the prose cliche-ridden, Hewlett's style is intensely personal; her facts persuasive; the case histories familiar and convincing. By the time you have heard her out, you'll find it easier to believe in the Easter Bunny than in the notion that American women have achieved equality. We may have the rules on paper, but as one of Hewlett's male sources says, "Liberation will mean little for either men or women if women enter men's world on men's terms." Sobering and disconnecting, "A Lesser Life" could deradicalize the entire class of 1986.

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