FEMINISM IS NOT THE STORY OF MY LIFE
By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Doubleday, 288 pp, $23.95
It has been 15 years since Betty Friedan published a calmly reasoned book calling for a ''second stage'' of feminism that would come to ''new terms'' with the family. Summarizing the need for a more inclusive approach, she wrote, ''We must at least admit and begin openly to discuss feminist denial of the importance of family, of women's own needs to give and get love and nurture....''
Radical feminists angrily accused Ms. Friedan of taking ''a step backward.'' But for ordinary women, trying to balance marriage, motherhood, and careers, Friedan's call for action held the promise of a kinder, gentler women's movement - one that would address issues facing all women, not just upscale career women.
Today, Friedan's message remains an unfulfilled hope, at least as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese documents it in ''Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life.'' So little has apparently changed that it is now Dr. Fox-Genovese's turn to call for a ''family feminism'' based on the everyday realities of most women's lives.
As a professor of humanities and English at Emory University in Atlanta and as a lecturer who travels widely, Fox-Genovese has had ample opportunity to hear the voices of women who feel that feminism has little relevance to their lives. Feminists, the author charges, ''normally minimize the importance women attach to the bearing and rearing of children on the grounds that women, like men, should be free to work as hard as they choose.'' Yet most women, Fox-Genovese points out, ''see their children as central to their lives.''
To Fox-Genovese, the ''most serious'' feminist failure lies in the preference of many feminists to ''consider women as independent agents rather than as members of families.'' Yet that is hardly their only failing. Feminists, she says, tend to blame men for the disadvantages women still face. And they claim that enough day care or cooperation from fathers will solve the problems working mothers face.
Some of the charges Fox-Genovese levels against feminism have an oddly dated quality. They give the impression that she is shadow-boxing, punching away at stereotypes left over from the 1960s and '70s. Among them: ''Feminists have not had much patience with femininity...''; ''Feminists tend to disapprove of love stories...''; ''Most feminists minimize the importance of marriage.''
So sweeping and vague are the charges that readers may wonder: Just who are these nameless, faceless feminists, anyway?
Fox-Genovese writes more like a sociologist than an academic. That serves her readers well by making her prose accessible and engaging. But it becomes a liability in the anecdotal evidence she offers to support her thesis. Real-life women appear briefly and pseudonymously, floating in and out so quickly that most remain as faceless as those unidentified feminists.
The heart of Fox-Genovese's message lies in her book's important final chapter. Charging that ''everyone is failing the children,'' she dares to state - and restate - a truth that has become unpopular in some feminist circles. Children, she writes, ''fare best in an intact family with a mother and a father who can provide for their basic needs, including considerable parental attention.'' Any ''family friendly'' policy, she states, must start from that assumption.
To that end, she offers a ''wish list'' of solutions.
She points out the need for changes in tax laws, which currently favor working mothers over mothers who stay home. She calls for more part-time work with more benefits attached to it. She wants federally guaranteed maternity leave. She also suggests the creation of a ''maternity IRA to which a woman could start contributing as soon as she starts work,'' then draw on without penalty during her child's first four years.
It will take more than a book - this one or any other - to bring about the changes she outlines.
Feminists, whoever they are, cannot bear the full weight of responsibility for all the problems women encounter. Cultural change comes slowly and requires leadership on many fronts: from politicians, from business leaders, from educators, and of course from women themselves.
Still, Fox-Genovese's wish list serves as a useful reminder of all the changes that still need to take place in women's lives. A feminist movement that unites rather than divides women and acknowledges the central place of men and children in their lives could finally make Friedan's and Fox-Genovese's shared vision of a ''family feminism'' a reality.