Can Reformers Make Subcontracts With America?

WORDS beginning with ''R'' are filling the air this spring: ''R'' for reform, as in welfare reform. ''R'' for reduced, as in reduced affirmative action. ''R'' for redefined, as in feminism redefined.

All three issues share a national mood of ''R'' for revision -- a feeling that the time has come for all accepted ideas to be reinvented, to use another popular ''R'' word.

Beyond the semantic connection -- sometimes hyped as ''R'' for revolution -- these three issues can be made to connect in more sober and thoughtful ways that could lead to new solutions.

When the subject is reforming welfare, politicians insist that cutting benefits and forcing recipients to work is the only way to end long-term dependency. Similarly, revisionists advocating a reduction in affirmative action argue that job quotas for minorities and women must go.

Now a third ''R,'' redefining feminism, holds the potential to bring about equally dramatic social change by shifting the center of the women's movement. Last year Christina Hoff Sommers, author of ''Who Stole Feminism?'' (Simon & Schuster) blamed feminist leaders for alienating young women. This month a similar call for change comes from Rene Denfeld, the 28-year-old author of ''The New Victorians'' (Warner Books).

Ms. Denfeld charges that feminist leaders are ''obsessed'' with such things as date rape, censoring pornography, male-bashing, and ''overthrowing a vague patriarchy.'' These ''diversions,'' she says, fail to address the real needs of a new generation of women whose concerns include child care, parental leave, and job opportunities.

Opponents of change in all three areas worry that attempts to redress perceived imbalances in the current order could produce setbacks, possibly punishing the very people revisionists claim to want to help.

Yet if Denfeld, for example, does speak for a generation of disaffected young women, her arguments, if heeded, could produce wide-ranging benefits. Her call for a more representative, less doctrinaire women's movement raises an intriguing question: What would happen if the end of welfare-as-we-know-it and affirmative-action-as-we-know-it coincided with a shift away from feminism-as-we-know-it?

The modern women's movement has always been vulnerable to criticism that it represents middle-class women and ignores poor women. But what if a more egalitarian movement rewrote its agenda to include the poor as well as the privileged?

What if leaders mounted an all-out effort to help teenage girls in poor urban neighborhoods, encouraging them to finish school before having a baby, giving them reason to believe in a future marked by self-sufficiency, not dependency?

And what if those leaders sought new ways to help welfare recipients receive job training and find employment and child care? Never has the need for good child care cut across class lines more clearly than it does today. As poor women receive an ultimatum from Washington -- ''Get a job, or else'' -- they, like employed middle-class mothers, need affordable, caring places where their children can grow and thrive while they work.

Articulate voices from a constituency attuned to the practical needs of women and families could place child care higher on the nation's agenda of urgent issues.

Similarly, a less shrill, broader-based women's movement might help women at all levels of employment deal with the dismantling of affirmative action. By promoting education and training for all, it could cut across barriers of race and class.

The reenergizing and redirecting of feminism is only one potential benefit that can come out of this springtime of change to make it a springtime of regeneration. When old formulas break up, neither the old formula-makers nor the new formula-breakers are really in control of the vitality that is loosed. Bring on the fair-minded improvisers with modest ideals and tangible programs, willing to form new alliances -- this could be their hour.

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