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Feminist Sylvia Hewlett Argues That the Women's Movement Forgot Someone Special: Mother

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“Elite feminists have overlooked the mainstream of American life—they forgot that 90 percent of us would become mothers,” declares Sylvia Hewlett, economist, feminist and mother of three. “In 1977 I was armed with degrees, I’d found a supportive mate and delayed childbearing to get my professional life in shape, but I couldn’t cope with this Supermom business.” Her discovery of the impedimenta to “having it all” inspired A Lesser Life (Morrow, $17.95), Hewlett’s scholarly, controversial appraisal of the women’s movement and its shortcomings. A native of South Wales with degrees from Cambridge and London University, Hewlett, 40, now a full-time writer, was for five years executive director of the Economic Policy Council, a private New York City think tank. She discussed her views with PEOPLE reporter Lee Powell.

Have American women been betrayed by the women’s movement?

Economically, yes. In America women’s liberation is a myth. Only 10 percent of women earn more than $23,000 a year. Half of all mothers with babies are working, and 60 percent of them have no job-protected maternity or parenting leave. [In America] women lose 20 percent of their earning power in the two years after childbirth. Children are viewed as an expensive hobby rather than a societal responsibility.

Were there no working mothers with babies among the early feminist leaders?

I see the leadership of the movement as being two types of women. First there was the Gloria Steinem type—didn’t we all want to be Gloria Steinem in 1975? The extremely capable, charismatic single person who does not choose to have a family. And then there was the Betty Freidan type, a woman who dealt with childbearing and career in sequence. But unless you have faced childbearing and hanging on to your career at the same time, you don’t really understand how cruel the choices are for today’s women. Most of us do have children, and we don’t have the option of taking five or 10 years off and then getting back on the track.

Why not?

For my generation and the one following, two things have changed. First, real family income has gone down every year since 1973, and increasingly we need two incomes to maintain the family. Secondly, the divorce rate has quadrupled in the last 20 years. We face huge economic risks as women if we choose to become homemakers for any length of time.

Haven’t changes in the divorce law helped women?

No. Contemporary divorce laws treat women more equally with men even though most women are not equipped to bear an equal burden, especially if they have children or are older and have been out of the job market. A recent study indicates that the standard of living for divorced men rises 42 percent in the year after divorce; in that period the standard of living for divorced women drops 73 percent.

How did the women’s movement affect you as a working mother?

In the 1970s, like most feminists, I worked to advance the Equal Rights Amendment. But when I had my first child in 1977 and tried to create policies for maternity leave and child care at Barnard College, where I taught, I discovered that my feminist colleagues thought I was trying to have my cake and eat it too. We had asked for equality, they said, and by God, this was equality. We couldn’t ask for special protections or deals around childbirth. The struggles of the ’70s for equal access to jobs and education for women were important, but unless we also fight for family support, women will never attain equal results.

Why have modern American feminists excluded mothers in their thinking?

In the 1950s women with four years of college went home and became full-time mothers. The society was affluent enough to support a class of home-makers. A baby boom lasted into the early ’60s. We had a cult of motherhood, helped along by child experts who said that 16 hours a day of mothering was what it took to rear an emotionally healthy child. So it was easy in the ’70s for feminists to see family life as oppressive. They wanted to get out and be autonomous individuals.

You’ve compared the progress of U.S. women to women in several European countries. How do we measure up?

In America the economic reality is that, because of our high divorce rate, women have lost the protections of marriage and have not gained significant earning power in the labor force. In 1939 American working women earned 63 cents for every dollar men earned; today they earn 64 cents.

Where in Europe do women fare better?

In Sweden and Italy women earn more than 80 percent of what men do, and in France and West Germany more than 70 percent. France spends 4 percent of its GNP on small children [the U.S. spends less than 1 percent] because they want young people to get a good start in life. Ninety percent of 3-year-olds are in excellent preschools there. In Italy when your child is sick, you have an absolute right as a parent to be with that child. In Sweden parents are entitled to a six-hour workday until a child is 8. Because women have these support systems, they find it easier to be both mothers and workers.

How have European women integrated family life and work more successfully?

Feminist reformers have chosen low-key strategies within political parties, churches and unions in order to win concrete benefits. The divorce rate is rising there too, but these European women have more protection than we do. France and West Germany provide free retraining for women after divorce, as well as medical coverage. We haven’t begun to deal with picking up the pieces after divorce.

Is it fair to compare a country as large and diverse as the U.S. with smaller European countries?

The U.S. is unique. I don’t want my vision to be a simplistic one. But we can learn from other advanced democracies. The last child care bill to pass Congress was in 1971 and Nixon, in vetoing it, spoke of it as some kind of Communist conspiracy. When I compared the U.S. with European countries, I deliberately included two very conservative, traditional ones—France and Italy—because getting kids off to a decent start is not a left-wing agenda. But the mainstream of our political process has had nothing to say about family life, and part of the reason is that the women’s movement has failed to focus on it. There is 25 percent less public money going into child care now than in 1980, and the cutbacks are costing us money.

How?

We’ve cut back on nutritional programs for pregnant women, and in 1986 we have more premature babies than ever. Premature babies cost $5,000 a day to care for, and the federal government pays most of those charges, because most of the babies are born to poor women. The latest studies on preschool programs show that young people with a good preschool education have a greater chance of employment at 16 or 18.

Should the private sector help?

I found that leaders of 75 major corporations supported key reforms. They calculated it would cost only .03 percent of their wage bill to grant working women who give birth six to eight weeks of partially paid leave and then six months of unpaid leave for either parent. It pays off in morale, productivity and lower attrition and absentee rates. More flexible career ladders would allow part-time work and sabbaticals for women. They could get back on their career track without being left behind. But it should not be just a private initiative. It has to come out of the government as a national goal. We should put in place a set of supports—prenatal care, day-care subsidies, maternity and parenting leave, preschool education and flexible work weeks—that other industrialized nations offer.

Some feminists have reacted negatively to your book. What is your response?

I’ve been very saddened by some of the reaction. I can see that it’s hard to deal with criticism. Any movement has a problem changing focus, but we have to broaden our thinking. Policies to bolster family structure should not be a divisive issue. We’ve failed to realize that most women have common goals: having a family and earning a living. I hope my daughter doesn’t have to choose between breast-feeding and being a professional.