When Gloria Steinem popularized the saying "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," I wasn't old enough to wear a bra, never mind burn it. However, thanks to that feminist credo and its infiltration of 1970s popular culture, women of my generation grew up believing we could make it on our own, like Mary Tyler Moore. While her theme song cautioned, "This world is awfully big, girl," our confidence rose with Mary's cap, tossed triumphantly to "You're going to make it after all."
Indeed, we did make it, though presidential campaign operatives peddling the "War on Women" narrative want you to Think Again. They insist it's a war on women when it's actually a war for women's votes. This month's political ad "The Life of Julia" occasions the question: Which voter are they after, Georgia in Greece or Mary in Minneapolis?
Julia is a single, faceless cartoon - evidently an American everywoman - who depends on European-like, cradle-to-grave government assistance from preschool through retirement. As if being tethered to a dependency-inducing nanny state were attractive to American women (or plausible given mounting debt), Julia, like her entitled European cousin, is the anti-Mary - she can't make it on her own.
Sadly, this government-centered and soul-deadening narrative is as false and harmful to women as the notion that we should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Both beget a toxic cocktail of subservience, loss of identity and worthlessness - the antithesis of feminism. Franklin Roosevelt cautioned that dependence "induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber" and "the human spirit."
The antidote to "learned helplessness" and its corollary unhappiness is "earned success," according to economist Arthur Brooks, happiness authority and president of the American Enterprise Institute. In his new book, "The Road to Freedom," Brooks explains that "people crave earned success, which comes from achievement, not a check. It's the freedom to be an individual and to delineate your life's 'profit,'" whether measured in money, "making beautiful art, saving people's souls, or pulling kids out of poverty."
Earned success is what our founders meant by "the pursuit of happiness," which is America's "moral promise" to its citizens. Brooks praises the founders' visionary insight because "allowing us to earn our success is precisely what gives each of us the best chance at achieving real happiness," and his data proves it.
Feminists understood earned success, knowing self-reliance and freedom would yield more choices, achievement, self-respect and fulfillment if women had a level playing field. Now, four decades since Helen Reddy sang "I Am Woman," women are "The Richer Sex" - the book by Liza Mundy documenting women's economic advancement. The New York Times book review noted that women hold 51 percent of management and professional jobs; wives at least co-earn in two-thirds of marriages; and women earn 57 percent of bachelor's degrees and make up 60 percent of graduate students.
Meanwhile, according to a March National Journal poll, three-quarters of women believe they can advance as far as their talents take them. Not surprisingly, women account for seven of the top 10 spots on Forbes' 2012 World's Most Powerful Celebrities list, including the top two, Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey.
Despite these spectacular achievements, economic stagnation makes otherwise self-sufficient women - especially single ones - insecure and uncertain. Preying on this anxiety, ambitious politicians cast themselves as compassionate by promising a lifetime of government benefits to a nation of Julias. Considering the tortuous unraveling of the eurozone, this idea is both fantasy and dangerous.
In Europe, hopelessly large social security and entitlement promises exceed governments' ability to tax and borrow, crushing those who believed economic security is a basic human right. Yet, as European leaders grapple with resentments caused by austerity measures, American politicians make the same promises that precipitated Europe's crisis.
Brooks would argue that even Julia knows it's wrong to make promises you don't intend to keep. He warns, "Americans today are experiencing a low-grade, virtual servitude to an ever-expanding, unaccountable government that ... has created a protected class of government workers and crony corporations that play by a different set of rules ... and has consequently left the nation in hock for generations to come."
Thankfully, American women are watching and willing to act. According to a Rasmussen poll released this week, nearly two-thirds of women (and men) prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes. So rather than foster dependency, why not encourage the fiercely independent and self-reliant ethic that originally motivated feminists and propelled women's economic advancement?
The real war on women is the one waged by those whose policies undermine our economy thus limiting everyone's choices, mobility and independence. As for Julia, she'd be better served by policies that empower her as an individual, not ones that encourage reliance on government.
Think Again, Julia - you can "make it on your own."