Time Warp in Beijing


What does it mean when nearly two-thirds of American women, young and old, tell pollsters they do not consider themselves feminists? Why do the same women welcome advances in education and employment, yet keep a distance from the movement that helped to win those gains?

There's no mystery. To many, the word "feminism" still connotes the peculiar phenomenon that took rise in the 1970s -- distinguished by its sour attitude toward family life, its rigid party line on gay rights and abortion and its puzzling combination of sexual anger with sexual aggressiveness.

That strange brew was set aboil by the fateful coincidence of the birth-control pill with what demographers call the "marriage squeeze," the shortage of mates in the usual age range for women born in the early baby boom.

Given the custom at that time for women to marry men a year or two older than themselves, the sharp postwar jump in birth rates meant that demography would be destiny for many unsuspecting girls who had been socialized for domesticity. (In the late 1960s, there were 1.7 million more women aged 20-24 than there were men in the 25-29 age group.)

There was a domino effect as women in the Abzug-Friedan generation saw their husbands seduced by the unexpected change on the supply side of the sex and marriage market.

No wonder feminists of the '70s affected disdain for marriage and, to their everlasting credit, broke new ground in the economic and political spheres. No wonder they directed so much fury toward men, yet spent so much on cosmetics. No wonder they made common cause with advocates of alternative lifestyles. And no wonder that today, most women have moved on, gratefully harvesting the gains while sloughing off the extremism, rage and promiscuity of an odd historical moment.

The many positive accomplishments of those years have been subsumed in a new, widely shared set of attitudes toward issues affecting women. Unlike its predecessor, the feminism now emerging is representative of the real-life needs and aspirations of a broad range of women.

It wrestles with harmonizing family life and employment in a society where nearly five out of six women become mothers, where most mothers work outside the home and where divorce and poverty are ever-present risks. It has added up the costs to women and children of the sexual revolution. It sees women and men as partners rather than antagonists in the eternal quest for better ways to love and work.

The new feminism is a house with many rooms, inclusive rather than polarizing, open-minded rather than dogmatic, capacious enough to have attracted eloquent spokespeople as different as Pope John Paul II and Irish President Mary Robinson.

Though far apart on issues such as abortion, the Catholic pontiff and the former international human-rights lawyer are one in proclaiming women's rights to achieve their full potential in all spheres of life and in denouncing ideologies that pit women against children and men. Their vision is of a world enriched by women's insights and experiences, a world that is welcoming to children and solicitous of the weak and vulnerable.

But like rays from a dead star, the emanations of 1970s feminism live on. They are pervasive, for example, in the draft "Program of Action" for the U.N. conference on women in Beijing. To die-hards of the old feminism, the conference represents a chance to seed international law with ideas that have been repudiated in all but a handful of countries.

Like the women's movement of the '70s, the Beijing draft stands for much that is good where education and economic opportunity are concerned. But it is flawed -- and not only in the much-discussed "deconstruction of gender" sections. Of 15 references to motherhood, for example, only one is positive; 12 portray it in a negative light, as an impediment to self-realization. Marriage and the family receive similar treatment.

The spirit of the draft is thus deeply at odds with the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, besides making marriage a fundamental human right, provides that "motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance."

Those who want to lace all women into the corset of outdated feminism are getting a hand from interest groups that don't exactly have women's interests at heart. Chief among these dubious allies are Western population controllers bent on pressuring poor women into sterilization, hormonal contraceptives and abortion, denying aid to poor families and barring the door to immigrants.

Radical feminism fits that iron triangle of exclusion like Cinderella's foot in the glass slipper. Take, for example, the Beijing document's weird "health" section, which harps almost exclusively on reproductive health with scarcely a glance toward poor nutrition, sanitation and tropical diseases. The message to the suffering multitudes of the world is clear: Beneath the U.N.'s Earth logo, Beijing ideologues would inscribe the greeting: "Wish you weren't here."

Whatever happens at Beijing, it is unlikely to slow the progress of the holistic feminism that is emerging everywhere at the threshold of the third millennium.

Some U.N. documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endure as a light to all nations. Others gather dust on library shelves. The authority of the Beijing document will depend on whether it can be reoriented toward the real concerns of the majority of women in the spirit of universal human rights.

That will mean, at a minimum, renouncing cultural imperialism, supporting the role of motherhood and recognizing that the fates of men, women and children, privileged and poor alike, are inextricably intertwined.

Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University law professor, is head of the Vatican delegation to the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women at Beijing. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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