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What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement
Deborah L. Rhode ’74, ’77JD

Oxford University Press, $29.95
Reviewed by Sylvia Brownrigg ’86

Sylvia Brownrigg ’86 is the author of six books of fiction, most recently a novel for middle-grade readers called Kepler’s Dream.

Legal scholar Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and the author of several previous books on gender and the law, here produces a broad, measured synthesis of the major issues of women’s rights in the United States, and the progress (or lack of it) toward their achievement.

Rhode starts with a few amusing introductory anecdotes about being an undergraduate at Yale in the second year after the college became coed—in a class described at the time as “a thousand male leaders and 250 women”—and later a student at the Law School. Then she turns to the paradox that is her theme: the fact that so many people support aspects of a feminist agenda, such as wage equality, while refusing to identify as feminists.

Rhode’s overall concern is to highlight areas where the law might improve women’s status, both in the workplace and in domestic life. In eight succinct, stimulating chapters on subjects including work and family, reproductive justice, and physical appearance, Rhode summarizes a great deal of sociological, political, and legal research. She keeps the narrative readable with stories of figures such as Hillary Clinton ’73JD and Sheryl Sandberg—and quotations from a broad array of sources, including Calvin Trillin ’57, in the New Yorker, and an essay from Playboy magazine. (The endnotes take up nearly a third of the book.)

Some conclusions are discouragingly familiar. In a chapter on sex and marriage, Rhode notes about “hooking up”—the casual sex prevalent on college campuses—that “a growing body of research suggests that the practice often reflects men’s preferences more than women’s.” Later, Rhode reminds us of the high rates of both cohabitation and divorce, and how both impact women. She introduces more-up-to-date news on the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance paternal responsibility, and the constitutional status of same-sex marriage. After briefly surveying the arguments made against it, Rhode calmly asserts that “there is, in short, no compelling justification for the state to limit marriage to heterosexual couples.”

In cogent arguments about how legal reform in various areas might further women’s rights, Deborah Rhode leans, necessarily, on the conditional tense: a Paycheck Fairness Act “would make it somewhat easier to challenge wage discrimination”; preschools “should be available through the public school system.” We may not yet live in the country Rhode sketches in this compelling book, but her thoughtful roadmap might help us move closer to it.