Feminists disappointed by women

Sexism really is still with us. On a recent episode of PBS’s “To the Contrary,” where I contributed as a guest, the discussion turned to the fact that women still lag behind men in achieving the highest leadership positions in politics and business. And some people think the statistics point to a problem with women themselves.

“Women need to learn to be much stronger” if they are ever going to reach “parity” with men, argued one commentator. Indeed, this activist complained that women are complacent, that “the real barrier now is not so much the external barrier, but the internal barriers that women have.”

The words didn’t come from a man hoping for a return to 1950s gender roles. It came from the mouth of an old-style feminist who appears increasingly disappointed in the failure of her own gender.

Former Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt is the author of the new book No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power. She describes herself as a women’s activist and is viewed as a champion for women’s rights. But this begs the question: women’s right to what?

For Feldt, the feminist movement has seen only limited success. She acknowledges in No Excuses that women are in a stronger position today than ever before in history — nearly a quarter of women out-earn their spouses; women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and now Ph.D.s; and women’s purchasing power has exploded.

And yet Feldt laments the fact that full parity hasn’t been achieved in “work, politics or even in negotiating those personal relationships.” She admonishes that while “the doors have been opened by many brave women who came before us,” women “have to have the courage to stand in our power and walk through those open doors with intention to make the changes we say we want.”

So, what are those changes we want? Is it for each and every girl — or at least as many as the little boys — to burn with a desire to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a workaholic Wall-Street investment banker or president of the United States? Is that what we women want? Or, perhaps, is it only what some women want all other women to want?

With few — if any — institutional barriers still in place, Feldt has been forced to find something else to blame for gender differences. Feldt is angry at women who have failed to make the choices she thinks they should make.

The fact that some women may not choose to pursue the fast track to the C-suite or that some women may — gasp! — enjoy being a wife and mother more than a career woman is quite simply not acceptable to Feldt. As Feldt understands it, women — and their misguided choices — have become the greatest threat to feminism today. In fact, women making the “wrong” choices have put at risk the newest trend in feminism: the push for full parity in men’s and women’s choices.

But if professional parity is what is best for society — and necessary for absolute equality — why not campaign for legislation requiring employment quotas? I suspect Feldt realizes this is unrealistic because no matter how balanced the circumstances, we know men and women are different and want different things.

Feldt would benefit from reading another professional women’s self-help guide, Womenomics by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. These authors recognize women today are in the unique position to negotiate success on their own terms. But they also acknowledge that many women “don’t want to make it to the very top of the ladder if it costs us so much else in our lives.”

Feldt might not like to hear that. But perhaps she needs to be reminded that feminism is about establishing equality under the law. Now that we have that, she’s going to have to accept the fact that all women don’t want the same thing.