Fast forward to 2009, and you find that women are now fully half of the American workforce. They earn 57 percent of bachelor's degrees, 59 percent of master's degrees, and half the doctorates. Females have achieved parity with males in law school and medical school and left their male counterparts in the dust in fields like veterinary medicine and psychology. Women serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and many other leading research universities. Today American women are among the healthiest, freest, best-educated women in the world, and they score near the top on international surveys of happiness and life satisfaction.
True, the 1970s feminist vision of a fully egalitarian society has not been fulfilled. Contemporary women and men are not pursuing identical career paths. Vast numbers of women--including many with advanced degrees--cut back or drop out of the workplace when they have children. In a 2007 Pew study, parents of children under 18 were asked, "What working situation would be ideal for you?" Seventy-two percent of fathers, but only 20 percent of mothers, said "full-time work." (For a majority of mothers, part-time employment was the ideal.) Hard-line feminists interpret such results as more evidence of "deeply ingrained gendering," and they work ceaselessly to reset priorities. But isn't it possible that in following the venerable feminist dream of "not being at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world," women do things their own way?
In Friedan's day, women were clearly the second sex. Not so today. Yes, many women are struggling with the challenge of combining family and work. But men do not have it easy either. They are increasingly less educated than women. They are bearing the brunt of the recession. The New York Times recently reported that "a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men." Reuters referred to the surging male unemployment rate as a "blood bath." Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "FastStats" show that men are less likely than women to be insured--and more likely to drink, smoke, and be overweight. They also die six years earlier than women on average.
Why are there no conferences, petitions, workshops, congressional hearings, or presidential councils to help men close the education gap, the health care gap, the insurance gap, the job-loss gap, and the death gap? Because, unlike women, men do not have hundreds of men's studies departments, research institutes, policy centers, and lobby groups working tirelessly to promote their challenges as political causes.
The struggle for women's rights is far from over, but the serious battlegrounds today are in Muslim societies and in sub-Saharan Africa. In these and other parts of the developing world, most women have not yet seen so much as a ripple of freedom, let alone two major waves of liberation. We should be directing our efforts toward the millions of women who have never had the luxury of coping with the problem that has no name.