ATLANTA — Feminists often view marriage and motherhood as oppressing and limiting. Many traditionalists, on the other hand, preach women's responsibility to stay home with children. Left without a voice are the majority of American women who don't identify completely with either philosophy.
That's the situation according to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who believes the United States needs a new kind of feminist movement.
''Neither side [feminists or traditionalists] is really talking about women's lives,'' says Dr. Fox-Genovese, a professor of humanities and history at Emory University in Atlanta. ''In fact, right now it seems both sides are hardening their positions.''
Fox-Genovese, interviewed recently in her home not far from campus about the issues raised in her new book, ''Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life,'' advocates a feminism that brings women together instead of dividing them. And although she knows of no organized group to push this position forward, she says growing numbers of women are defining their own model of feminism.
Instead of agonizing over how to balance work and family or when or whether to have children, ''I think there's a younger generation that's saying ... 'I'm going to do it differently,' '' Fox-Genovese says. This is ''a generation where women are doing as well as men, getting into professional and graduate schools. They're saying, 'I am going to have some time to have a baby; I'm good, I'll go back, or I'll keep at it at a slightly reduced rate.' ''
The feminist movement has for the most part spoken only to the upscale, single, career woman, Fox-Genovese says. ''But the majority of working women are mothers or about to be, and the majority of mothers are working women, so the feminists should be heralding the working mother,'' she says.
Instead of worrying about living up to an unattainable ideal, women should realize they often can have it all, but perhaps not all at once. This kind of discussion should be the focus of more women's studies programs, Fox-Genovese says. But women's studies still center too much on women as oppressed victims, she says. During a recent women's studies class taught by one of her graduate students, however, she found the dialogue refreshingly different.
''Some in the class had been fed a line about being victimized; others hadn't learned any formulas or slogans about how they were supposed to think and were prepared to say, yes, I want a career, but yes, I want to be married and have kids,'' Fox-Genovese says.
''My favorite moment was when we were talking about oppression and what oppression meant, and ... one student said, 'I don't think I'm oppressed,' which gave us a new direction to start in. Oppression wasn't her problem; her problem was how she juggled all the possibilities that were opening up for her.''
For women to juggle the possibilities, however, the working world needs to become more responsive. Fox-Genovese proposes a number of ways that would make it easier on women as well as men, including more part-time work with benefits; providing programs such as child care with tax breaks and incentives; maternity IRAs, which a woman could contribute to as soon as she starts work; and allowing women to declare child-care income and deduct child-care expenses without penalty, up to perhaps $2,000 a year.
''We need something just to ease the pressure,'' Fox-Genovese says. ''We've got a work world and a model of work, at least on the upscale end, that seems to be all or nothing.... Meanwhile it's the children who are suffering.''