THE BLOG
09/24/2014 08:30 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Feminism Is On Life Support But We May Be Able to Save It

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The Democrats have decided they're going big on "women's issues" this election year. Last week Hillary Clinton, flanked by other female Democratic politicians, called on voters to make it a "political movement." Achieving economic equality and full participation by women in the labor force, Clinton insisted, is the next frontier for women today.

It's unclear whether this is an attempt to engender a new wave of feminism or a political ploy to scoop up the women's vote, but the movement will go nowhere if feminists insist on defining women's issues in this way.

For a start, the vast majority of people don't want to be associated with the feminist movement. A full 75 percent of Americans say they reject the feminist label to describe themselves, including 65 percent of women, according to a recent Economist/ YouGov poll.

On top of that, 26 percent of the population considers the word "feminism" an insult. Even among those who view the term neutrally, the poll found a long list of negative qualities people ascribe to it including, pushy, misguided, stupid, fighters, aggressive, selfish, and crazy.

So why has a movement that gave Western women the right to vote, achieved legal equality, and parity in access to jobs and higher education come to be so reviled?

I have a few ideas.

For a start, maybe feminism has simply lost its femininity. Maybe the strident tone of yesterday's feminists poisoned the attractiveness of the movement today. Maybe some of the ranting and raving during the second wave of feminism made it all seem, well, a little unbecoming.

Whether today's feminists like it or not, many women embrace the softer qualities of our gender and understand they actually contribute to our strength or empowerment as women. Most of us do not feel we are being oppressed by a patriarchy or exploited by men. Some of us, I dare say, quite like men.

In other words, maybe the voices of the few have drowned out the sensibilities of the many.

Now I don't want to belabor the point because I think there is a much larger reason why the women's movement has fallen out of favor.

The messages of feminists simply aren't resonating because they focus almost exclusively on women's roles in the workplace, pay equity, and issues of sexual violence.

Today's feminist thinkers largely refuse to discuss the single most defining struggle for most women today and that is the difficulty of balancing all of our choices. Choices between motherhood and family versus work and career advancement. Choices, ironically, that we were given by the victories of yesterday's feminists.

My theory is that most feminists do not open this dialogue because it would require them to acknowledge there are innate differences between men and women in our preferences and behavior. To do so would undermine the dogma that men and women are the same, and that any differences are due to discrimination, social conditioning, or worse, unconscious submission to subjugation.

The reality is that men and women are not the same. Aside from the wide range of biological and psychological differences proven by scientists across numerous disciples, when it comes to work and family, men and women simply want different things.

For example, one national survey found that a greater percentage of women than men want to work part time. Specifically, 62 percent of American working mothers say they would prefer to work part-time, compared to 72 percent of working fathers who say they prefer to work full-time, even though mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children under the age of 18.

Working women were also found to value "family friendly" policies more than working men, and are more likely to prioritize non-financial benefits in jobs, compared to men who prioritize higher earnings.

Meanwhile, feminists remain curiously silent on the critical social roles women have as mothers and wives--roles that continue to be embraced by the vast majority of women.

I've often thought today's movement could benefit from drawing on the wisdom of some of the earliest feminists from 19th century Britain. Separate to the suffragettes, there was a strain of feminism that championed the innate and valuable roles women have as nurturers and caregivers. These activists understood that care-giving in the context of the family is crucial to the well-being of society, the upbringing of children, and the character of generations to come.

Mary Sumner comes to mind as my favorite example. She rallied for motherhood to be recognized as a vocation, equal to, if not more important, than all of the professions then occupied only by men. You will not see her name on the roster of Women's Studies classes.

Judging by the importance many of today's women place on balancing work with family obligations, I wonder whether those feminists were more progressive than today's brigade who continues to fixate on dubious wage gap figures and smashing glass ceilings.

In that vein, I would argue that for all the advances women have achieved, today's feminists will never gain traction if they refuse to address the concerns of the silent majority that is struggling to balance all of its opportunities.

The time has come to write a new chapter for feminism. One that aims to support a wide range of women's choices both professionally and socially, not the narrow ends defined by feminists who insist economic parity and equal outcomes to men are the only desirable goals.

Achieving those ends will involve pushing for policies that support women both at work and at home. I hope it will also mean challenging the entire structure of the modern workplace, giving women the flexibility they need to balance the decisions that are right for them in a society that cares about meeting the needs of children and families.

These are the real areas where the women's movement can make an impact today, and it's time for feminists to start discussing it.

So, where should we begin the conversation? I propose we start with the age old question, "What do women want?"

@melaniebatley