"The Futures of Women," by Pamela McCorduck and Nancy Ramsey, tackles the toughest question that feminists face: where will women be in the early part of the 21st century? Will our slow march toward equality with men gather speed and critical mass, resulting in more and more status for The Other 51%? Or will some of our key victories be turned back, as they have for the women caught under the rise of the Taleban? Or will we just plod along, scraping away at the boundaries of a still essentially male-dominated system?
Thinking about these questions is not just a matter of setting a political agenda and trying to stick with it. There are factors outside women's direct control that could very well influence our future-- economic or environmental crises, for instance. This book is an attempt to take the broadest possible view, incorporating the effects of technology, global business, health care, and shifting political power on the status of women the world over.
When I first picked up the book, I worried that it was founded on a dubious premise: that "women" in general had a well-defined future, as if we all moved together like a giant school of minnows. After all, no one would be foolish enough to undertake a study or write a book on "The Futures of Men"; the possibilities depend too much on which men you study, or would end up being so general as to be nearly useless. But historically, women have felt a kind of kinship that men do not (mostly due to being united in positions of inferiority), which lends more meaning to the category "woman" than "man." As a feminist, I certainly understand the concept of grouping all women together, and was willing to set aside my doubts and go on the intellectual voyage McCorduck and Ramsey offer their readers. (And in fact, it turned out that they didn't treat all women as the same anyway).
So I set forth. I invite you to read the following journal of my travels.
McCorduck and Ramsey are the same age as the second-wave feminists, but shouldn't be stereotyped as such. Well, OK-- there is one glaring giveaway of their cohort: In the Introduction, they waste no time with the obligatory bemoaning of Gen X's "passivity": already on page 12 they say, "A generation of women who've taken equality as a given hardly feel impelled to fight for what they believe they already almost have". (I admit, I had to roll my eyes at this-- when, oh when, will older feminists get the concept of the third wave?) However, as futurists and scenarists, McCorduck and Ramsey are extremely open-minded-- more so than most women of any age-- and happily, the rest of the book is a delight for anyone who is tired of the standard feminist rhetoric and other typical analyses of gender.
The purpose of the Introduction is to jar the reader into a more open-minded state. Declaring boldly that "the Official Future will not take place," McCorduck and Ramsey point to numerous reasons why feminism is a shifting, nonlinear phenomenon that is not simply taking the linear forward path that women of the 1970's imagined it would. For some, these statistics will be an eye-opener, so I was glad to see them collected together. However, if you already know that the current and future state of feminism is complex, don't be tempted to skip ahead-- it's important to understand the fascinating technique they used to imagine the futures of women.
The technique that McCorduck and Ramsey use is called scenario-building. This is a way of imagining the future by constructing stories that flow plausibly from the current situation we are experiencing. Scenarios are not predictions or prescriptions for the future-- they are more open-ended and creative than that. But neither are they just fantasies or wild dreams-- they are grounded in facts and statistics, and are generated by logical analysis. The point behind scenarios is twofold: (1) to recognize and embrace the fact that the future is uncertain, and also (2) to balance that uncertainty against the fact that we must act nonetheless. Scenario planning involves identifying predetermined elements which must occur or influence the future no matter what (such as an aging population); driving forces, which are the most important factors in deciding which direction the flows of events will take (such as the global economy); and critical uncertainties, which are the difficult-to-predict wild cards that will nonetheless play a role in the unfolding of the future (such as new, yet-unimagined technologies).
Scenarists generally come up with three or four scenarios for a given case, and present them side by side. Scenarios do not come with assigned probabilities because they are not predictions; in fact, the "real" future is likely to combine elements from several scenarios. Instead, the point of seeing the scenarios side by side is to expand your understanding of the situation at hand: You are invited to consider points of view that you may not have thought of before, you are encouraged to see the long-term consequences of seemingly trivial trends that are occurring now, and you are perhaps moved to take actions now that will help achieve the more positive aspects of the long view.
"The Futures of Women" is a set of four scenarios for imagining the continued development of the sociopolitical movement to improve the status of women. These scenarios take place in 2015, 20 years from the time of their creation, and are conceptualized as the four quadrants of a graph: on one axis is the global economy, which is rapidly becoming a single, organic entity under no nation's or industry's control. It can range from growing, "boom" conditions (as the diversity and larger volume feed off each other to spur more growth and capital worldwide) to a global Depression (as the volatility and weak political systems of emerging nations drag down the economies of the "first world" countries in a deflationary spiral). On the other axis is the ever-present political tension between individual and group rights. We live in a paradoxical time: through the Internet and other global communications, we are more connected than ever to people and events worldwide, and yet we simultaneously place a higher-than-ever value on self-reliance and individual rights. We believe that government is becoming obsolete in favor of individual empowerment, and yet for this empowerment we rely more than ever on the infrastructure and stability that are provided by our legal and regulatory systems. This axis ranges from a continuing drive toward individual considerations at the expense of the group to the opposite trend of valuing the group over the individual. The scenarios are entitled "Backlash," "The Golden Age of Equality," "Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back," and "Separate and Doing Fine, Thanks!"
In this dismal world, we return to the concept of what is "natural," which as usual means what preserves male superiority. Old religious principles resurface, casting Woman in the role of wife and mother, with little physical substance beyond her own uterus. In the hypocrisy typical for such systems, moral rhetoric dominates the public sphere, while a strong illicit sex trade thrives in private. Women go back to the oldest profession-- prostitution-- in record numbers, which only increases their social stigma, their ill health, and the unbreakable cycle of poverty.
Everything comes under tighter national control, as people come to see the individualist leanings of the 1990's as "excesses" that caused the current economic crisis. Internet censorship is more tolerated, and even actively supported for women, who shouldn't see "unseemly" material. National standards in education and hiring serve to legitimize racism as well as sexism. All these control efforts are attempts to return to a mythical better time, when men were men and women knew their place. It is widely believed-- first by men and eventually by women too-- that the social and economic breakdown had been caused by women "abandoning" the family role and "selfishly" participating in the world of gainful employment.
There just isn't enough to go around, so people start to scrap with each other over the tidbits. Small wars and petty skirmishes are common worldwide. Women begin to savage each other in order to hang on to what little they have. Not surpisingly, fairly well-off white women claw their way into a somewhat secure niche by agreeing to live June Cleaver-like lives; poor and minority women are snubbed and left to fend for themselves (where they fare much worse). And old women of all races are detested as useless and a waste of resources.
At first Backlash had less of an effect on me than it might for other women because, as a third wave feminist, I've heard a version of it so often. It is superficially similar to the gloom-and-doom scenario that second-wavers invoke as they sigh about Gen X's "lack of enthusiam." Like parents warning their children of disaster if they don't eat their brussels sprouts, the second wave tells tales of rolling the clocks back a century unless the young women keep constant vigil with consciousness-raising sessions and mimeographed leaflets.
(Personal aside that I must include at this point: It always bothered me that the second wave seemed to have so little confidence in the great changes they had wrought-- as if they were so ephemeral that not paying conscious attention to them would somehow cause them to evaporate. If they themselves were so unsure of their success, how could they expect men to take the changes seriously? Only by acting as if our hard-won rights are perfectly normal and to-be-expected-- what the second wave calls "taking them for granted"-- do we have a chance of sealing them indelibly into human culture).
But as I read on, the full effect hit me. To their credit, McCorduck and Ramsey do not adopt the gloom-and-doom approach; they do not claim that the mere fact that young women aren't marching on Washington will cause a global Handmaid's Tale to occur. Instead, they knit together a much larger story which depends on many critical factors-- the collapse of the global economy, a loss of faith in entrepreneurship, and environmental decay, among others. In the face of all these other problems, women get scared and end up participating in their own enslavement out of desperation. So in fact, this is a very different picture from the one used by cranky second-wavers, and because McCorduck and Ramsey's scenario is so much more rigorous, it is much, much scarier. Especially with the recent economic/political volatility, the collapse of leadership in the U.S., and the imminent Y2K problems-- the whole thing felt a little too close for comfort. (This is, BTW, the mark of a good scenario! Reading scenarios shouldn't necessarily be a comfortable experience). So I was glad to get to the next section...
This profound attitude change means discarding the decaying institutions of the Industrial Era, such as regimented workdays, highly structured schools focused on the 3 R's and rote learning, and restrictive policies on health care and drugs. An increased awareness of complexity and nonlinearity makes 20th-century concepts of either-or and black-and-white look ridiculously simplistic. Traditional institutions such as the natural sciences and law are forced to reexamine their rigid foundations and adapt to the newer ideals which integrate logic with emotion, rigor with intuition, control with understanding.
The Internet plays a key role in shaping the new ideals as people engage more and more freely in games of interaction that allow them to pose as self-designed characters online. Through these cyber-interactions, people learn to appreciate the diversity of race, religion, culture, and sexuality that already exist worldwide. Often, online friendships turn into real-life friendships or even romances. The world is truly a global community.
Women have a prominent place in this new societal order. It is quickly realized that women are expert at the new integrative methods, and they excel in an information- and knowledge-driven economy. They move relatively easily into positions of financial comfort and learn to wield power commensurate with their representation in the population. As women have a greater say in how funds are spent, more money goes to girls' education, children's health, and peace efforts. This is not done in a retaliatory fashion ("Hah-- now we get to spend money on our programs"); rather, it is part of a larger realization that healthy, well-educated women have a profound, positive effect on overall health, morality, and happiness. What's good for women really is good for everyone.
What about men? As the sea change starts to snowball women's status, men discover that gender progress is not a zero-sum game: if women win, men can win too. They find that an expansion of women's roles has led to an expansion of their own roles, reducing many of the strains they felt from conforming to a traditional masculine way of life. For instance, men are freed from the pressure of being the primary breadwinner, giving them more time to enjoy fatherhood and watch their children grow. They are also freer to express emotion, which reduces the bottled-up rage many men carry with them in the frustration of pent-up feelings.
Men and women do not fade into androgeny, however. Instead, gender roles become more diverse, and people are allowed to fit themselves into various roles as they please. The old concept of rigid masculine and feminine ideals is just one more silly duality from the 20th Century.
I admit that I found this scenario far-fetched. Almost every page I found myself doubting that such changes could actually take place ever, much less as soon as 2015. For instance, the transformation of the male role is postulated to occur essentially painlessly; men just "suddenly realize" that their role is too constricting, and immediately relax the machoness that has run rampant for the rest of human history. It would be great-- and we are closer to that possibility now than in the past-- but still, I don't see it happening without a large-scale men's movement akin to the women's movement, and some significant struggle.
However, because the rosiness of the Golden Age seemed false, I was able to see that the darkness of Backlash was perhaps also exaggerated. And so I continued with the next two scenarios, more aware of the possibility of extremism resulting from collapsing everything into four stories.
The world is characterized by a cultural fragmentation that never produces any emergent qualities. Diversity turns out to mean nothing more than lack of consensus-- in many ways, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The global economy is chaotic, the global community is quarrelsome, and everywhere there is a growing distrust. People retreat into their own little ideological holes, and women struggle to survive in isolation.
Worldwide, there is a steady tide of migration as people believe that the grass must be greener anywhere but where they are (although the trend is generally from the developing nations to the modern developed nations). But really, it's bad everywhere, and all the shuffling just rearranges the problems and creates more ethnic tension.
One significant effect of the nomadic life of young people is to fragment their loyalty and reduce their political power (who has the time, energy, or concern to vote when you've just arrived in a foreign country from halfway across the globe?). Consequently, the aging Baby Boomers in America are able to form an "elder bloc" that holds some sway in electing candidates and enacting policies. Although this benefits some of the more wealthy seniors, it also encourages young people to opt out of the system, which they feel is increasingly pandering to the elderly. Governments get weaker in favor of individual autonomy, with predictable effects on the quality of health care, child care, and welfare. All of these losses of state support affect women disproportionately.
Although there are some modest successes in developing countries-- India, for example, finally succeeds in modernizing most of its industry and educational system-- they largely come without the concommitant equalization of gender. Women continue to have only token representation in business, science, and many governments. They still receive inferior education and health care. They still work just as hard for less pay than men, and have to do a "second shift" of housework in addition to their jobs. The gender gap may be closing slowly in some cases, but in others it is only widening, and on average women are not making substantial gains.
This was a thoroughly depressing scenario, perhaps even more so than Backlash. That's because it represents the "neutral" path-- more of the same. It's hard to admit that things really are just plodding along despite the expense of so much energy already. The inertia of patriarchy is just staggering, and sometimes you don't want to think about how much effort it will take to change its lumbering course. But we have to think about these things. Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back is a much-needed, realistic reminder that feminism is not dead.
The strong individualism and budding libertarianism of the 1990's come to be seen as extremist, and governments regain some of their past status. This is not good news for women, whose rights and concerns are, as usual, secondary. But the age of authoritarian control is long past, and women finally realize that they can go their own way, circumventing the barriers that they used to battle their way through. Through the Internet and good old-fashioned kitchen table chat, they form "old-girl networks," which support them from behind as they venture into the mixed-gender world of business, government, and culture in general.
The freedom is a breath of fresh air for women who were exhausted from the constant battle for a single, gender-fair world. Women still associate with men as friends, lovers, and coworkers, of course, but now a plethora of all-women organizations (like church groups, business networks, and intellectual clubs) provide companionship, comfort, and job opportunities. Sure, it would be better if men had learned to change, but since they refused, women went ahead their own way. And they have made decent money!
It's important to note that the women of this world are pro-woman, not anti-man. Their companies and organizations do not go out of their way to hurt, exploit, or viciously exclude men. In fact, they simply don't go out of their way for men at all. Women deal with men as other adults; they have at last shrugged off the stereotype that says they must nurture everyone else (and themselves last of all). They waste no breath proclaiming their "superiority" to men or engaging in any sort of man-bashing because they have work to do!
For the first time, women's sexuality is acknowledged in a mature way. No longer limited to the choice of virgin or whore, Victorian prude or nymphomaniac, women learn to incorporate a healthy sexuality into their total lives. For well-off women, there are ritzy sex resorts that offer role-playing fantasies to take part in; poorer women simply enjoy sex without all the strings that men used to attach to it in the 20th century. Sexuality also expands-- straight women feel comfortable exploring lesbian sex or group sex, and homophobia is in general reduced.
It is still perfectly acceptable to take lovers, get married, and have children. Sometimes, women are not allowed to have men inside of designated women's areas ("femmunes"), but this is not a contentious issue because joining femmunes is a free choice, and besides, women can (and do) go out for rendezvous or even leave the femmune for years at a time (during a marriage, or while raising a teenage son), then return. And of course, women have sons as well as daughters, so boys are well-loved and in fact have the advantage of growing up seeing their mothers as accomplished, self-actualized adults.
Most interesting of all, women in this world are allowed to disagree. Some female groups disapprove of the tactics of other ones. Republican women in America stand up and take back their party from the Religious Right, thus revitalizing the political debate with women Democrats. At last, women are human enough to agree and disagree as individuals! We have moved beyond both the simplistic concept of global sisterhood and the dog-eat-dog behavior of Queen Bees to true, adult interdependence.
This scenario floored me. It is in many ways the vision of the third wave. Some may find it a bit too "separatist," but I suspect it is a more extreme version of what we could accomplish in reality anyway. What a glorious world!
This world contains a sea change just as great as that of scenario 2 (The Golden Age), but strangely, it is downplayed by McCorduck and Ramsey. The change is that women realize they don't have to wait for men. Without becoming "bra-burning, man-hating bitches," they can simply go about their business, treating "nice" guys nicely and dealing with jerks as the situation demands (sometimes ignoring them, sometimes blasting them out of the water). I hate to even mention this, but I wonder if the stunning import of this change went unnoticed because it is "only" a change in women. When men change, as in The Golden Age, that's a sea change.
Wow! What a journey! I am truly impressed with the scope and quality of McCorduck and Ramsey's synthesis. All the scenarios are at least somewhat plausible and contain the important trends we are already seeing today, just amplified in different ratios. In fact, some aspects of every scenario have already occurred or are eerily close to occurring. This set of scenarios accomplishes exactly what it should: it challenges the reader to see the facts in new ways and acknowledge the possible directions that seemingly unimportant trends could lead in, which will (hopefully) mobilize some action to steer events toward the more positive scenarios. Frankly, I am all the more excited about third wave feminism and the promise of the Internet!
What are the take-away lessons? McCorduck and Ramsey provide some commentary in the Epilogue. Using the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women (held in Beijing) as a backdrop, they point out various trends that are already present and some early indicators of trends to come. There are plenty of disturbing facts that speak unequivocably: Nothing is assured. We won't be handed any easy victories. Backlash is not out of the question. And even as we move toward The Golden Age or Separate-- and Doing Fine, Thanks! we must be constantly vigilant not to slip into Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back.
It's well worth reading McCorduck and Ramsey's Epilogue, but remember also that one important purpose of this book is for each woman to find her own lessons. Think about what you just read, and draw your own conclusions. Then act on them.
Not surprisingly, McCorduck and Ramsey find Separate-- and Doing Fine, Thanks! to be disappointing-- a pale, stunted future that women might have to "settle for" if they can't achieve The Golden Age. (You get very used to this sort of commentary from the second wave).
Just three retorts to this sentiment:
Women always get held to higher standards than men. When we become doctors or lawyers or business executives, we must be the absolute best before we can even approach the glass ceiling (Maria Mayer had the win the Nobel Prize before she was deemed worthy of a professorship). Sadly, some feminists have been duped by this tactic: Women are supposed to bring universal gender equality and solve all of men's psychological problems with machoness and achieve world peace and end poverty, crime, and racism. If we do not accomplish all of this in its entirety, then feminism has "failed." Men will sit smugly back and say, "See? You didn't do it. You wimmin are just as weak as we always said you were." And then women believe them, and that's that.
This is a classic male tactic, and unfortunately, it has sometimes worked. It plays neatly on women's traditional role as Mommy-who-makes-everything-better, especially for grown men who shouldn't need a Mommy.
Clearly, requiring women to solve everyone's problems before considering feminism a success is unreasonable. We're not going to clean up the entire world because that is outside anyone's ability! (As these scenarios remind us, there are many driving forces in the world outside women's-- or anyone's-- direct control). We're not Mommy. We're human, and we deserve just as much as any other humans simply because we exist. The feminists who were provoked by the above male tactic to proclaim that women would "save" the world from the evil male patriarchy fell right into the male trap of requiring women to do three times as much as men before we even get a pat on the head.
Separate-- and Doing Fine, Thanks! is a visionary scenario in which women finally achieve status as humans, not as Supermoms or Saviors or Demigoddesses.
This scenario is no more a "cop-out" or "compromise" that the United States is. After all, that band of visionary men back in the 18th century could have tried to reform England instead of "opting out" and making a new country. Did they achieve world peace? Far from it! But we don't hold them to that (ridiculous) standard, do we? Instead, we celebrate their courage to strike out on their own and build a new vision. And lo and behold-- Europe liked what they did, and followed suit in many ways. If women can accomplish something similar, it truly will be a golden age.
When photographers make "diversity shots," they like to have three males and two females because if they have equal numbers it looks like the women dominate. People are programmed to expect women to be in the background, not to be conspicuous, and certainly not to have normal, autonomous lives just like men! If we are equal, we must have too much-- even women secretly believe this! This attitude keeps women from progressing, and the sooner we dump it, the better.
If Separate-- and Doing Fine, Thanks! made you feel uncomfortable because women had elevated themselves to the level of men without also "helping" men (as in The Golden Age), then you have classic female guilt.
The other major lesson that I want to emphasize is that women do well when they use the power they have to further their own visions of the future. The positive scenarios share more than a good economy-- they occur when women actively participate in shaping the world, through politics, business, science, the arts, education, and good motherhood. We lose when we let go and just let the world evolve without us. Passivity will destroy us as surely as Backlash, and Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back seems very likely to occur if we don't hurry.
Let's keep moving!
(One more personal note: as an amateur scenarist, I also read this book with a growing ache-- how exciting it would have been to participate in the creation of these scenarios! I wonder if Gen X women would have come up with a different set. Already my head is buzzing with ideas for future projects....)
But enough. Read this book!