Many Americans were disappointed when President Obama devoted a Saturday radio address to a celebration of the progress of women in society. Most of us were more interested to hear about the progress (or lack of it) in dealing with the crisis that threatens to become a new war in Libya.
The president was excited about a new White House report on the status of women, the first such report in 48 years. John F. Kennedy assigned Eleanor Roosevelt to explore the subject on that occasion.
Obama told us that women earn more high school diplomas and college degrees than men, and the number of women in the workforce almost equals the number of men. But they still don't hold as many power positions.
You might not have noticed this report's significance, however, since it was issued just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, the U. S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Samantha Power, a senior director of the National Security Council -- three of the most powerful women in the Obama administration -- effectively persuaded the president to put America into the coalition against Moammar Gadhaffi.
It was a throwaway speech but dear to the president's heart. He wants to see his two daughters grow up in a world "where there are no limits to what they can accomplish." Fair enough -- but the growing problem for the female sex in this country is less political than cultural, and it starts in the home, not the White House. We're talking image rather than achievement.
The problem that needs our undivided attention could have fit under a chapter head in Betty Friedan's celebrated '60s best-seller, "The Feminine Mystique." You could call it the "The Sexual Sell." The sexual sell is seen first in little girls who graduate overnight from demure princess dresses to party dresses with what they imagine is cleavage, from playing dress-up in mom's shoes to wearing their own spike heels.
Superficial sophistication is no longer a way for a child to try on different adult styles for size, but rushes young women into a false feeling of safety that is sexually enticing, disarmingly seductive and potentially explosive.
The slinky dress on the preteen may be "cute" when she's hanging out with her girlfriends, but it quickly becomes "hot' on a teenager hanging out with boys, blurring the boundaries between innocence and sexuality.
"Why," asks Jennifer Moses in The Wall Street Journal, "do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this -- like prostitutes, if we're being honest with ourselves -- but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?" The answer indicts a generation of mothers who grew up as the most liberated generation in history, and who are only now having second thoughts over what they want for their daughters.
"We were the first moms in history to have grown up with widely available birth control, the first who didn't have to worry about getting knocked up," she says. "We were the first not only to be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputation but actually pressured by our peers and the wider culture to find our true womanhood in the bedroom." And now thousands of moms don't have a clue about teaching their daughters the perils and foolishness of giving away their bodies so readily.
There are lots of reasons for the current excesses of little girls whose sexy style goes way beyond their psychological ages. We could round up the usual suspects in media and advertising, with focus groups and consultants, but common sense is all anyone needs to see what happened. It's one of those pesky unintended consequences of the sexual revolution.
Post-Pill mothers worry more about appearing like hypocrites with their daughters than assuming parental authority, setting thoughtful moral guidelines. They can expect to hear the same excuses from their daughters that daughters have made since the first cave girl donned a well-off-the-shoulder leopard skin.
High-tech complicates matters. Coinciding with a mother's ambiguous messages are the peer messages bombarding the adolescent's cell-phone network, merging texting with "sexting." When these young women get to college, parents can expect no surrogate gatekeepers to help them resist the increasing pressure for "hooking up."
This mother's plaint about young girls in "plunging necklines, built-in-push-bras, spangles, feathers, slits and peek-a-boos" is getting none of the buzz of a similar plaint of the famous Tiger Mom about permissiveness in educational discipline. Modern moms seem to be more animated over how their children study for the SATs than how they deal with their beckoning sexual lives.
They should reprise the cliche nearly every mother once asked her daughter on her way out of the house dressed like a hooker: "You're not wearing that?"