Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Barbara Bush finally got to speak at the Wellesley commencement last June, despite protests from 150 seniors that she did not embody the qualities that Wellesley seeks to instill in its students because she had dropped out of Smith to become a wife and mother. At about the same time, another Smithie from the forties spoke during Smith’s own commencement weekend. Betty Friedan, the mother of American feminism, gave a rousing speech to a packed audience. She began by saying that “We have some real problems in feminism.” She said that something was seriously wrong with feminism today, when a group of Wellesley seniors could repudiate Barbara Bush as their commencement speaker simply because she had chosen to be a full-time wife and mother. She reminded all of us in the audience that Barbara Bush hadn’t really had any choice in the forties except to drop out of Smith to put George through law school. She described for us how she and other “first-stage” feminists fought to restore a fully legitimate place for women in the professions and in careers, a place they had won in the twenties and thirties but lost again as the post-war “feminine mystique” tightened its grip.

What Betty Friedan had really come to tell us, though, was something new and more important: that we have now entered the second stage of feminism. She let us know that it is now safe to acknowledge that the first-stage feminism of “having it all” and “Supermom” has been a cruel illusion. Women have been spared petty prejudice only to be met with personal catastrophe. For the first time in American history, women work far harder than their mothers. They miscarry more, are divorced more, abandoned more, abused more, fall into poverty more. And, if anything, their children, whom women stubbornly love and continue to bear despite all, have it even worse.

I was elated by her opening remarks. Our fifteenth reunion class had just come from an extraordinary discussion among ourselves. The class of ‘75 had changed. There was no more of the uneasy, superficial “I just made VP for finance” posturing of our fifth and tenth reunions. This time we were honest. We told of stress miscarriages, premature births, and infertility, of alcoholism and divorce. Many of us had been beset by tragedy and disappointment, and in the process had radically re-evaluated our lives and values.

We quit dream jobs, refused partnerships, cut back to three days a week. We deliberately asked for tedious, dead-end work that got us home on time. We gave up the thousands of dollars and the years of bard work we had invested in our careers and “Ivy League” education. We willingly made the very sacrifices that so many feminists fought to free us from and condemned Barbara Bush for. We did it because we realized that children need families and mothers, not just “quality time” for a few carefully scheduled hours or “quality care” by a carefully regulated day-care center. We did it because we realized that we need our children. We are no longer ashamed to own the feminine in us, those personal, human, intimate values of hearth and home that we dutifully suppressed for so long in favor of careerism and competition.

But when she finally got to the heart of her talk, Betty Friedan did not suggest that the obstacles to combining a high-powered career and a young family were in any way profound or required the kind of radical re-evaluation our class had just completed a few minutes before. She did not defend the personhood of women and the importance of choice in the courageous way she did in her book The Second Stage, a work attacked by many feminists. Instead, she exhorted us to leap over the horns of the dilemma by vaulting to a very different sort of “second stage.” This second stage informs us that we can indeed have it all, not because all good things in life can be bad simultaneously (they cannot), nor because our newly enlightened husbands will leap into the domestic breach (which Friedan agrees they won’t), but because the government will make our bosses give us unpaid maternity leave and subsidized day-care slots.

In this second stage, women’s suffering is recognized, even tenderly cultivated—as political ammunition. But the solution propounded is neither personal empowerment nor spiritual wisdom. Instead, Betty Friedan and a loose coalition of professional feminists and child-care advocates proffer Smithies and other middle-class women a strategic bargain. If only we will give up our minds and our votes to the cause of the month, the bill of the month, if only we will shout how we are victims. too, then the advocates will promise us a place in the queue for public benefits. The elite will jostle with the poor and illiterate for subsidized day care, so strangers can care for the children we, privileged and poor alike, long to cradle in our own arms. Instead of fighting to give us the chance to nurture our children during the irretrievable, precious years of childhood, the activists promise laws to cudgel our bosses into giving us a few weeks of unpaid leave to guarantee that mere children will not needlessly interrupt our return to our jobs.

But these jobs seem to mean less and less, not just to the office cleaner but even to the elite of my class, the lawyers and vice presidents. A number of recent polls show that women want more time with their children. Huge majorities would like to be home with their small children if only they could afford it. True, many have to work. As a non-elite secretary, I myself worked to feed my family through two pregnancies that left me in such pain that I used to cling to the office walls for support. Yet quality, licensed day care did not alleviate my or my child’s distress, it aggravated it, because the very professionalism and regulation by which legislation defines “quality” turned out to be structurally inimical to the flexibility and warmth mothers and children need. What we want and need and what 75 percent of American parents want and need is parental care or as close to parental care as they can come. The very day-care legislation that got so much applause for Friedan from the undergraduates and younger alumna at her talk favors the least popular, least flexible, and most expensive and problematic form of care: group care for young children.

In return for giving us not our first or second but last choice, our middle-class votes will guarantee this coalition irresistible political clout, clout the poor have never had. With that clout, the child-care lobby will, for the first time, be the channel for billions of dollars of public funds, with all the patronage potential that goes with it. As politics, this is business as usual. Everybody does it. The problem is truth in advertising. Child-care interest groups and their unthinking feminist allies use the rhetoric of “choice” and “quality” and their status as professional educators and guardians of young children to disguise as dispassionate advice what is in fact a political horse trade. One for you, ten for me.

As Betty Friedan worked the crowd, milking cheers for the pending parental-leave and day-care legislation, I believe that neither she nor her audience recognized that by this act the movement has enmeshed itself in an unholy alliance. The same movement that promised us personhood, that promised us that we would never again suffer for the social and economic convenience of others, now campaigns assiduously, if unwittingly, to have us do just that.

This proposed legislation is the opening salvo in a deliberate attempt to “build a child-care system,” a system openly modeled upon Swedish family policy. Some advocates, at least, are aware that the Swedish system was designed to drive women out of the home and to tap their labor. Swedish economists calculated how “wasteful” it was to allow women to inefficiently raise their own children when “coming manpower shortages” meant their labor could he put to much better use by society. Swedish social engineers declared that the family was a fundamental source of social inequality and determined to break its hold on children, shooing them into institutions and effectively regulating informal family day care, the care 75 percent of Swedish parents preferred, out of legal existence. They succeeded only too well. The birthrate plummeted to 30 percent below replacement and the Swedish family is the weakest in the world. In a desperate attempt to undo what they have wrought, government leaders now promise a full eighteen months of parental leave, thus attempting to save their society by smuggling through the hack door what they so ruthlessly shoved out the front: mothers at home.

Today’s America is fifteen years behind Sweden. So child-care advocates promise business leaders that a vote for their leave and child-care legislation will keep mothers in the work force so that looming labor shortages need never materialize. Betty Friedan herself reminded us of the increasing need for our labor, thoughtlessly repeating not just the child-care lobbyists’ arguments hut their very words. No need to add that wages will he hid down thereby. Business leaders can figure that out for themselves. The taxes to pay for subsidized slots will come from the same generation that needs them. The regulations involved will destroy the cheapest and most desired care, informal care in another family, as they did in Sweden, hut with a new twist. Unlike Sweden, where a black market of family day care still exists, the fine print in current federal child-care legislation states that failure by any state to enforce licensing regulations will cause the guilty state to lose all its funding. Thus laws that supposedly give more money and greater choice in child care to mothers and their children will in fact hold them hostage to the enforced restriction of both. Even though huge numbers of us are exhausted and isolated as our mothers never were, feminists, corporate leaders, and the child-care lobby are effectively forcing us to remain in the workforce against our deepest wishes, our lives made just bearable by scant leave and scanter subsidy. Many are probably sincere in their belief that, at bottom, women will he liberated only when they stand alone as economic equals in the outside world. But women are losing interest in this false, male, competitive model.

Women want children. Society has no future without them. Women with children who try to compete economically as individuals have the worst of both worlds and society pays the price. For the sake of all three, we need to strengthen, not supplant, the family. We need to have a women’s movement with ideals, a movement that fights to give women the choice to recreate the irrational love and uneconomic nurturing that family implies. We need a women’s movement that supports child benefits and family benefits, not child-care lobby benefits or industry benefits. We need the third stage.

Jessica Gress-Wright is the mother of three small children and is currently writing a book on family policy.