Feminism fails in Australia too

Surprise! It failed to make men into women! But the poor sad feminist excerpted below is still hoping

It is unnerving to acknowledge, especially after Betty Friedan's death, that participation of Australian mothers in the workforce is on the decline. There may be many explanations: the cost of child care, the generosity of government benefits to traditional breadwinner families, and women choosing to "opt out". Throw in Australia's long working hours and the Howard Government's cultural campaign to exalt the homemaker (before it realised it needed her working) and you have an ideal climate for a backlash against the revolution Friedan ignited.

The most important ingredient, however, in stalling mothers' once unstoppable march into jobs is the failure of the much-heralded "new man" to arrive on the scene. Today's urban, educated men are different from the taciturn breadwinners of yesteryear, for sure. They are more sensitive, more interested in the arts, in fitness, in food and furnishing. But when it comes to getting down'n'dirty in the kitchen, or supervising the kids, the statistics tell an old-time story. Working mothers do a double shift, and working fathers don't - and some women, it seems, won't take it any more.

Feminism changed women but it did not change enough men - enough. And without men's transformation, it was always going to be a hard slog for mothers to gain equality. Workplaces have progressed haltingly in the 40 years since Friedan's The Feminine Mystique became one of the most influential books of the 20th century. But in the home, the lives of most men and women with children have hardly shifted.

And so it is disquieting, but not unsurprising, to see the data reported by NATSEM, the economic modelling centre at the University of Canberra, showing young mothers' withdrawal from work. In 1990, 58.7 per cent of partnered mothers aged 25 to 34 were in the workforce; by 2003, this had declined to 52.4 per cent. For partnered mothers aged 35 to 44, a similar slide is evident - from 75.5 per cent participation to 70.6 per cent.

In the US, where the trends are in the same direction, The New York Times ignited a huge debate late last year with a story that claimed increasing numbers of women graduates from elite universities were setting "a career path to motherhood". A blistering analysis in American Prospect magazine by Linda Hirshman came to the same conclusion. As one bride with a master's degree told her: "He's the CEO and I'm the CFO. He sees to it that the money rolls in and I decide how to spend it."

Decades of workplace feminism have left untouched the abiding belief that women retain the major responsibility for raising children and keeping up the home. Ten years into the Howard Government, it is important to remember why the decline of mothers' workforce participation is a cause of concern rather than a heartening sign of expanding choice.

Friedan said it best in the famous first paragraph of her book: "Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - 'Is this all?' "

A career of full-time homemaking, especially for educated women, usually is not enough. And, in trying to persuade themselves it is, a new generation of women will be prey to the same demons of depression and breakdowns that plagued the Valium-addicted mothers Friedan described. If full-time homemaking were the fulfilling, influential and socially validated role conservatives claim it to be, you can bet more men would be doing it.....

The formula for producing the new man is yet to be discovered. It would help if the Federal Government reversed its policy of giving the least family and tax benefits to parents in the most egalitarian of arrangements - where both partners work part-time. Women might have to get more serious about their work, adopt learned helplessness in the house and, as Hirshman advises, marry younger men or much older ones. Equality at home and at work is still a fine goal. The journey there is longer - and more tiring - than Friedan thought it would be. But it's the only trip to take.

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