| August 1, 2013

‘Freedom Feminism’ and the Pursuit of Happiness

With 70 percent of women now in the workforce, at first glance the audience might seem enormous for the recent bestselling career book "Lean In," in which author Sheryl Sandberg discusses perceived roadblocks women face in their careers.

Sandberg herself is a Harvard-educated woman who before the age of 30 had followed her economics professor Larry Summers to the World Bank and then served as his chief of staff when he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury. She helped start Google and is currently second in charge at Facebook, serving as chief operating officer. For the .001 percent of women like herself who are Ivy League-educated and determined to reach the highest levels of business leadership in their professional lives, she has much to teach.

However, to the majority of women what she offers is her plan to compete with men to reach the corner office—which is squarely at odds with what most women say they want for themselves.

In a 2013 national poll on parenthood, the Pew Research Center asked mothers and fathers to identify their ideal work arrangement. A full 61 percent of mothers said they would rather work part-time or not at all while 75 percent of fathers preferred full-time work. Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points to similar results found by sociologist Catherine Hakim at the London School of Economics when she studies the preferences of women and men in Western Europe.

In a recent article, Sommers said the progressive feminist movement views these choices as “evidence of entrenched sexism and internalized oppression.” She continues, “The National Organization of Women points to ‘persistent stereotypes’ and ‘myriad forms of sexism’ that ‘steer’ women to particular paths and family roles.”

In an interview on 60 Minutes, Sandberg opined that the greatest threat to a woman’s career is that point in a woman’s life when she is considering having children. She says it is at this point that women tend to stop aggressively pursuing more challenging tasks in their jobs, and that this is when they should “lean in” instead of check out for mommy duty.

Sandberg even contradicts herself when asked if she feels guilty about her decisions. To lend credibility to the content of her book, she should definitely say “no.” Instead, she says all women feel guilty about the professional decisions they make and this is a fact of life that doesn’t afflict men. That feeling is one that progressive feminists would have us women ignore. However, when a woman like Sandberg, who has written an entire book supporting progressive feminist ideology, publicly admits that even she feels guilty, we have a problem with how American culture perceives the role of women and work.

The progressive feminist agenda pits women against men as they vie for the same jobs as men. The assumption is that men and women are interchangeable. Those who are in traditional marriages are told that domestic duties should be equally shared. This is a necessity in Sandberg’s eyes as well. According to her, studies show that a wife’s estimation of her husband’s sexiness increases if he does the laundry. Perhaps this is true; however, what doesn’t correlate with Sandberg’s prescriptions for women’s success and happiness is the evidence of what women themselves are saying about the type of work arrangements they prefer and the professional fields they are actually pursuing.

According to Sommers, women remain far more likely to enter fields like teaching, child care, social work, nursing, and pediatrics. Men are far more likely to be engineers, auto mechanics, metallurgists, and construction workers. As Sommers rightly questions: “Are these trends the result of sex discrimination, hostile environments, or invisible barriers—as gender activists never tire of saying? They could be. But isn’t it possible that in the pursuit of happiness, men and women take somewhat different paths?”

We are not a genderless society. The evidence is clear that women and men prefer different occupations and different work arrangements (full-time, part-time, stay-at-home). Sommers says that feminism needs to be redefined, and I agree with her. She has coined the term “freedom feminism.”

“Freedom feminism stands for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes—and the freedom of women to employ their equal status to pursue happiness in their own distinctive ways,” she says. “Freedom feminism is not at war with femininity or masculinity and it does not view men or women as opposing tribes.”

What I value about this type of reform of progressive feminism is that if offers us a feminism that affirms a woman’s moral compass and personal liberty.

OCPA research fellow Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.”

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