IN 1977, when Sylvia Ann Hewlett was expecting her first child, she was an associate professor of economics at Barnard College. Armed with a PhD and lots of confidence and ambition, she believed she was part of ``a golden generation of women'' who would benefit from social changes brought about by the women's movement. But Barnard, a prestigious women's college, offered no maternity leave, paid or unpaid. Dr. Hewlett was forced to return to work 10 days after her daughter's birth. Despite her best efforts to balance the needs of her baby and her students, colleagues did not take kindly to the new demands on her time. Eventually she was denied tenure.
Although the story has a happy ending -- she quickly moved to the Economic Policy Council as director, doubling her salary -- the experience was a stinging reminder of the dual burden women face in combining careers and families. If Barnard, a bastion of women's rights, wouldn't provide maternity leave, she reasoned, what were the prospects for millions of other women with more patriarchal employers?
As Hewlett -- now an American citizen but an Englishwoman by birth -- searched for answers, she compared American women with their counterparts in France, Italy, Sweden, and Britain. In the process, she discovered that the progress of women in this country has been more illusory than real.
Her research led to her fourth book, ``A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America'' (William Morrow, $17.95). Drawing on extensive scholarship, interviews, and her own experience as a working wife and mother of three, she analyzes the sobering economic realities American women now face.
``When I came to the United States 15 years ago from England,'' Hewlett recalls, ``I thought American women were surely better off than us benighted Europeans. But then when I started looking at the reality of European women's lives, I found that they had many more economic advantages than we did in this country.''
Those advantages include job-protected maternity leave, subsidized child care, and child allowances -- family support systems that she believes are ``rooted in a tremendous societal responsibility for families'' that goes back 40 or 50 years. ``[Europeans] do what they do not because they're gung-ho for women's rights but because they care enormously about the fabric of their society -- about making it possible for kids to have a decent start in life, about making it possible for women to be mothers as well as workers.''
By contrast, she says, ``Modern [American] superwomen are meant to have children on the side, on their own time, and the less said about the matter the better. In this country there is little appreciation of the fact that having children is a societal imperative as well as a private choice, that children are a nation's collective future.''
Some of the blame for that negative attitude, Hewlett insists, must go to the women's movement itself (``the biggest, the noisiest, the highest profile of any country''). American feminists, she asserts, ``have tried to achieve equal treatment by working primarily for the ERA and abortion rights'' and by minimizing the differing needs of men and women.
``I feel that was a wrongheaded priority,'' she says. ``I'm a feminist, and I believe in people being equal. But I also think we're different in some regards, and you can't ignore that. Equal access to jobs and educationis very important. But unless you do something abouta woman's double burden in the workplace and inthe home, she's never going to achieve equalopportunity with men.''
That double burden, she asserts, has been exacerbated by two conflicting forces: a ``cult of motherhood'' from the '50s that saddles working mothers with guilt, and a male-clone model of competitiveness and success from the '70s that alienates homemakers.
``American women are locked into a no-win situation,'' she says. ``They have lost the guarantees and protection of the past -- marriage has broken down as a long-term and reliable source of financial security -- and at the same time they have failed to improve their earning power as workers in the labor market, for the wage gap between men and women is as wide and as stubborn as it ever was.''
To underscore her point, she ticks off grim statistics: The gap between male and female earnings is the same as it was in 1939. Since 1980, federal subsidies for child care have been reduced by one-fifth. America has the world's highest divorce rate, and 49 percent of fathers never see or support their children after a divorce.
Yet, she continues, ``Motherhood is not going out of style. For the majority of mothers, their children con stitute the most passionate attachment of their lives. It is impossible to build a mass women's movement on an anti-child, anti-mother platform.''
As one example of that hostility, Dr. Hewlett relates an experience she witnessed in her own offices at the Economic Policy Council, a private-sector think tank of business and labor leaders. Last summer a female colleague fired a secretary who was five months pregnant ``because the woman had a doctor's note saying she wasn't to work more than 35 hours a week -- work time, not lunch hours. This woman had an unemployed husband. She had to go hit the job market five months pregnant. Who would hire her? I managed to get her back on the payroll, though in a rather worse job. My colleague has two small kids -- she should have understood what she was doing to this woman.''
That kind of problem could be prevented, she says, if policies recommended by a family study panel at the Economic Policy Council became law. These include job-protected maternity leave, high-quality preschool programs, and maternal and child health care for low-income women and children.
Hewlett also expresses cautious optimism about a bill introduced in Congress this week by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. The Parental and Medical Leave Act would require companies to give workers up to four months of unpaid leave for child care and up to six months for health problems.
``The federal government has to provide a little leadership,'' Hewlett asserts. ``Then the private sector will put its mind to being imaginative and more effective. We expect so little from our public policies in this sphere. It's seen as kind of illegitimate to expect safety nets. We're all supposed to solve our problems ourselves.
``Some of these are excellent issues for the right and left to get together on,'' she continues. ``Day care is a very tough issue for the right, but parental leave isn't, because they don't want to see babies in day-care centers at three weeks. Who does?''
Ironically, she notes, ``Women executives on the panel were in some sense harder to persuade of the importance of these policies than men. It's as though you're looking at a group of survivors -- women who have climbed up that slippery ladder so painfully that when they get to the top and they're 50 and in charge of policy, they're even more frightened of appearing to produce special benefits for women than the men are.''
Another way to improve women's economic condition, Hewlett maintains, is through labor unions. ``The only realistic way the fast-food waitress or nurse practitioner will get decent benefits is through a trade union, because they have no individual market power,'' she says. ``They're very expendable. And yet only 14 percent of [women] are organized. But those 14 percent do much better.''
Not surprisingly, Hewlett's views are drawing mixed reactions. ``By and large feminists have been hostile,'' she concedes. ``Because I failed a litmus test of feminist orthodoxy -- support for the Equal Rights Amendment -- they find it very hard to see the book as a legitimate exercise.
``But the central message of the book is a passionate plea for greater economic justice for women, so feminists should connect with it. I wanted to be constructive. Unless it's acceptable to try to change the movement from inside by loyal opposition, clearly the movement can't become more relevant.''
As one step in improving the economic condition of women, Dr. Hewlett would like divorce to be ``much harder'' for couples with children. ``I would like to institute compulsory counseling. Divorce is the single biggest vulnerability of women with small children. We can't unscramble the egg and go back to the '50s, but I think we can tighten up the process a bit.''
She also suggests more rigorous enforcement of child support laws, and a reexamination of property and no-fault divorce laws. ``We must reinstitute longer-term maintenance for two groups of women -- those with small children, and the older displaced homemaker, who is in such incredibly bad shape when she hits the job market at 53 or whatever.''
In addition to policy changes, Hewlett says there must be an effort to give young women ``a more realistic handle on what faces them, and give them some ways to improve their situation. There's a lack of realism as to how difficult it is to mediate the work-marriage-motherhood triangle.
``Guilt and inadequacy are what haunted my generation,'' she says, summing up. ``If today's young women can see that the structures need to be reformed, and they can be part of that process -- if they can see that it's not all their own lack of strength -- I think that will be a great release.''