State of Play
Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman
by Phyllis Chesler
Thunder’s Mouth Press. 551 pp. $22.95
Kay S. Hymowitz
IN 1970 Phyllis Chesler strode onto the feminist stage with a speech to the American Psychological Association demanding that the profession pay a million dollars in reparations for all the poorly “adjusted” women whom its members had tranquilized, seduced, hospitalized, raped, electro-shocked, and lobotomized. The money was never forthcoming, but Chesler’s stunt was the launch of a brilliant career. Her best-selling Women and Madness followed two years later, succeeded over the decades by eight more books on the plight of women under the “patriarchy.” Though her fame eventually waned, Chesler’s radicalism did not. As she recently wrote, “It may be 1998, but in my view we are still living in the 1950’s.”
Could it be, then, that Woman’s Inhumanity To Woman, Chesler’s latest book, represents a conversion, a parting of ways between our era’s most influential social movement and one of its minor stars? Feminists generally have depicted women as empathetic and caring creatures, victims of male aggression and dominance. Chesler appears to want to overturn at least part of this orthodoxy. As she relentlessly argues, women give as good as they get, especially toward each other.
CHESLER begins with a run-through of the scientific and historical evidence on female violence. Among primates, evolutionary psychologists have found, females often bid for “alpha” status by trying to sabotage the reproductive cycles of their sisters. Mother lemurs and chimps have been known to kill and even cannibalize their competitors’ babies.
As for the human side of things, the gentler sex is not always so gentle. Japanese, Chinese, and Indian mothers-in-law frequently beat their son’s wives, whom they treat more like slaves than like daughters. Genital mutilation in Africa, honor killings in Islamic countries, burnings over dowry disputes in India—all take place against women with the enthusiastic support of other women. In the Western world, Southern white women humiliated and beat their female slaves, while gangs of young women in today’s Mexico and Los Angeles visit mayhem on each other, often in arguments over men.
More commonly, Chesler relates, females battle each other by resorting to what social scientists call “indirect aggression”—gossip, manipulation, backstabbing—methods at which they can be very skilled indeed. Chesler gives as a prime example the remark of Mary McCarthy upon encountering Susan Sontag in the early 1960’s. “Oh,” she said, looking the younger writer up and down. “You’re the imitation me.” Researchers in a number of countries have found that such nastiness starts early. Schoolgirls use their considerable social skills to jockey for status within a clique and, when slighted, keep their resentments boiling far longer than do boys.
Some of this behavior, Chesler believes, can be explained by psychoanalytical theory. She speculates that women’s penchant for indirect aggression results from the frustrated romance of the mother-daughter bond. Longing for intimacy, girls may be enraged to find that their mothers reserve most of their affection for their husbands. To this Chesler adds a portrait of the “Demetrian” mother—named for the goddess Demeter, who kept her grown daughter Persephone in tow six months a year—who feels betrayed when her child shows signs of independence.
This is not to suggest, Chesler hastens to add, that women alone are to blame for women’s inhumanity. Another culprit (needless to say) is the “patriarchy,” especially in today’s male-dominated workplace. She cites a study showing that female economists were more likely than their male counterparts to reject the proposals of women for National Science Foundation funding—a result, Chesler asserts, of women having to compete among themselves for a few token positions. Nor are things any better in office settings, where women obey the dictates of various dysfunctional “gender standards.” Thus, some female managers pretend to be caring mother figures in order to suppress dissent and demands for money, while others act, as one of Chesler’s subjects put it, like “male-impersonators.”
The book is also replete with examples of how Chesler herself has endured life in an estrogen-pumped war zone. Her own breathtakingly malicious mother “demanded, ordered, accused, threatened, punished, screamed. Slapped. Pulled hair.” Chesler mère bristled at hugging or kissing her daughter, criticized her relentlessly, and greeted her publications with remarks like, “What? Another book against the men?” Chesler also chronicles the envy her success has provoked in other women, some of whom tried to become her “intellectual daughters.” These women, we learn, stalked Chesler, left her murderous phone messages, plagiarized her work, and even told lies about her to her friends and colleagues.
Looking back, Chesler remembers the early days of the feminist movement with fondness. She and her fellow radicals were “smoldering figures of sin and soul . . . giants on the earth.” But she now believes they were denying the realities of female psychology. She questions feminist demonizing of the poet Ted Hughes, showing instead his wife Sylvia Plath’s penchant for paranoid rages, and tells tales about the rigged elections, whispering campaigns, and other internal cruelties of groups like NOW.
The problem, Chesler writes, was that feminists of her generation saw themselves as “the equivalent of a family or a religious order” and worshipped each leader “as if she were the Good Fairy Godmother.” Now this “lapsed utopian,” as she calls herself, has been humbled. Feminists, she concludes, are “no worse—but no better—than any other group of human beings, male or female.”
AS SUCH statements suggest, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman has its lucid moments. Chesler is frequently an eloquent writer. She is especially interesting on family dynamics, and her notion of the “Demetrian” mother—who hasn’t known one?—deserves to go on a list of familiar sociological types. Though many of her supposed insights would have seemed tritely obvious to our corseted grandmothers, it is useful, in our own ideologically fogged times, to be reminded that women, like other fallen creatures, suffer from envy, ambition, pride, and resentment, and that they substitute cunning for force in their efforts to fashion the world to their liking.
Still, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman is so beset by intellectual hysteria, and so crammed with personal grievances, that most readers will find it more interesting as the unwitting biography of a flamboyantly self-obsessed late 20th-century feminist than as a serious analysis of female nature. Chesler leaves us with a weird phantasmagoria of girls behaving badly, a litany of the worst examples of feminine nastiness from literature, psychology, opera, myth, and (supposedly) ordinary experience.
Many of her anecdotes—and there are scores of them, from clients, friends, and acquaintances, or friends of friends and acquaintances—have a gaspy, “can you believe she did that?” quality. There is the blind mother who met her adult daughter in a restaurant and reached into her blouse to see if she was wearing a bra, the mother who did not call her daughter for three months after the death of the younger woman’s twelve-year-old child, the woman who lives three blocks away from her wheelchair-bound sister but never visits her.
As for Chesler’s account of her own experiences, it is suspiciously self-serving. One minute she laments the effect of her mother’s exceedingly difficult personality on her own development, the next she announces, “Truly I am the daughter of male experts, I am not my mother’s daughter.” (If one thing emerges clearly from the book, it is that Chesler is her mother’s daughter.) As she tells it, it has been her misfortune since childhood to be surrounded by viciously jealous, endlessly spiteful, grasping females who sought to do her harm.
Surely it is no accident that Chesler leaves out of her account the most memorable story from one of her earlier books—about a party in the mid-70’s at which she herself slugged in the face a woman who had angered her. The exploit was liberating, she reported then, but recounting it here would point too obviously to the fact that Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, like that punch decades ago, is Chesler’s payback to foes real and imagined.
Although Chesler continues to believe that feminism saved her soul, one cannot help wondering whether the movement was not especially damaging to a young woman prone to theatrics, vengeance, and egotism. All revolutionary movements attract big personalities who use ideological battles as a stage for their petty resentments. But feminism, which tried to erase the boundaries between the personal and the political, has been an especially fertile ground for such self-dramatization.
“Only recently,” Chesler writes, “have I been able to acknowledge that my own bold ideas and my passionate, direct style are probably very threatening to other women.” She knows whereof she speaks when she says that women also aspire to be the biggest lemur in the jungle. She latched on to a movement that gave that ambition a voice without teaching her to modulate it.
KAY S. HYMOWITZ is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children as Small Adults.
The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated July 5, 2002
By CAROL TAVRIS
Man, it is so hard to live down that sugar-and-spice rep. We women try, Lord do we try, and still people are shocked -- shocked! -- when we are mean to each other, humiliate our partners, scream at our children, spread nasty rumors, lie on our résumés, embezzle from our employers, demean our employees, give slower drivers the finger, have extramarital affairs, commit murder, enter the military, join the Aryan Nation or the Islamic Jihad, and fail to send Christmas cards to the family. How dare women behave like ... like ... people?
If you have been under your bed since 9/11, you will have missed the current flurry of books and media stories about just how much like people women are. Journalists, academics, and psychologists alike have all been offering their observations on the "discovery" of female aggression and meanness.
The freelance writer Margaret Talbot's report in a February issue of The New York Times Magazine, "Girls Just Want to be Mean," kicked things off. Rachel Simmons, an independent scholar and national trainer for the Ophelia Project, which aims to create safe and nurturing environments for girls, weighed in with Odd Girl Out, on the "hidden" culture of girls' aggression. It quickly became a New York Times best seller. Rosalind Wiseman, who cofounded the Empower Program for teenagers, contributed Queen Bees and Wannabes, which offers parents advice on how to help their teenage daughters "survive cliques, gossip, boyfriends, and other realities of adolescence." Sharon Lamb, a clinical psychologist and professor at Saint Michael's College, wrote The Secret Lives of Girls (which I endorsed last fall before I realized it was going to be one of a crowd), exposing the undeniable fact that girls have sexual feelings, get angry, and can behave aggressively. Emily White, a freelance writer, focused on Fast Girls, and how the "slut" is selected, slandered, and then cruelly ostracized by the adolescent in-groups that fear and envy her. Apparently grown women just want to be mean, too: The women's-studies scholar and psychologist Phyllis Chesler reminded us last year that man's malevolence toward man isn't a patch on Woman's Inhumanity to Woman.
Naturally, the media have been salivating. Oprah, Dateline, Ted Koppel, and countless magazines have duly reported the news about all this hidden and formerly secret female aggressiveness -- though none of it seems to be terribly hidden or secret to women, or for that matter to men. To be fair, Newsweek balanced its report on the epidemic of mean girls with another cover story on the prevalence of non-mean girls.
Of course, gender differences are eternally fascinating, a source of amusement, anger, and exasperation; trying to understand one's own and the "other sex" is America's second-favorite indoor sport. (And it's part of the job description if you're female.) So books about gender always have a ready -- and vulnerable -- market. But why aren't particular gender topics, like female aggressiveness, evenly distributed, like raisins in a cake? Why do they bunch up, like buses on Fifth Avenue? You wait forever, and suddenly there's a cluster of them.
One reason is that trade publishers crave "news"; you must have something different to say, at least semi-shocking, to warrant publication. In the world of gender books, therefore, old news about female inequality won't do, such as those pesky world problems of discrimination, poverty, illiteracy, genital mutilation, rape, and lack of birth control. Old news about female superiority won't do, either. The feel-good genre of the 1980s and 1990s -- with its notion that women are kinder, better at friendship, and more moral, compassionate, earth-loving, and nurturant than men -- is toast. And so the time and economy were just right for the "new," not-new news that girls aren't sweeter than boys, but just as bad, sexual, and aggressive -- maybe even meaner, given the ruthless and sneaky ways they control each other's sexuality, reputations, and impulses toward independence.
"Which sex is in trouble?" books have another economic function: They drive public attention to social problems and help determine what resources will be thrown at them. That is why the national conversation is so often framed in terms of who is worse off. Who is having more trouble in schools: girls, more likely to be overlooked, or boys, who have more learning disabilities? Who has the greater self-esteem problem: girls, who feel insecure and fall silent, or boys, who feel insecure and brag? Who has the greater bullying problem: girls, who do it verbally, or boys, who do it physically? Who has the eating and body-image disorders: white middle-class girls, with their familiar problems of anorexia and bulimia, or teenage boys, many of whom are taking dangerous amounts of steroids and pumping themselves up to meet a cultural ideal no less damaging than gauntness is for girls? How about African-American and Hispanic teenagers, of either sex, among whom rates of being overweight and obese are reaching epidemic levels?
Unquestionably, many aspects of our culture foster aggression, competition, and selfishness, and girls and women are hardly immune from those influences. Readers of Woman's Inhumanity to Woman will nod their heads and say, Chesler is so right. Many women do brutally control other women's sexuality by, for example, slandering, shaming, and excluding those who have "illicit" sex, and by perpetrating such brutal practices as female genital mutilation in Africa. Many women do envy other women's success at work, with men, or at motherhood. Many mothers are cold or neglectful; belittle their daughters if they are not pretty or thin enough; and try to ensure their conformity. Although Chesler brings in studies and clinical material to support her case, her bitter tone and the personal experiences she reveals make one think her title could have been Woman's Inhumanity to Me.
But readers of Shelley E. Taylor's The Tending Instinct will also nod their heads, saying that Taylor, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, is right, too. Women's caretaking -- of their families, friends, parents, neighbors -- makes social life possible. Throughout their lives, women love and rely on their friends. "Women and children have literally stayed alive over the centuries because women form friendships," writes Taylor. Take that, you Selfish Gene, you macho Men in Groups! It's unattached males -- packs of adolescent primates or lonely single adults -- who get into trouble and cause trouble, and whose health plummets without the loving ministrations of a nurturing female. Taylor's optimistic, cheerful tone makes one think her title could have been My Marvelous Female Friends.
All this yinning and yanging about which sex is better or worse, which sex has the more pressing problems, would be funny if it were not so depressing for anyone who has studied or lived through enough swings of the pendulum. Menstruation makes women crazy and irrational? No, it makes women closer to the rhythms of the earth. Wait, no, it gives them PMS, which makes them crazy and irrational. Women are manipulative and cunning, competing with each other for men? No, they are the souls of peace and cooperative sisterhood. Wait, no, they are just as warlike as men. For me, what is interesting about the latest cluster of books on girls and women is not just what they say, but how they say it, what they omit, and why they omit it.
Good old-fashioned American historical amnesia makes the eternal dilemmas of gender seem fresh in every incarnation. What makes us what we are: nature, nurture, culture? Are the sexes inherently different, and if so, in what ways, with what consequences? Yet it is also true that each generation confronts problems specific to its era. Mean-girl books have struck pay dirt because they hit a nerve in the national parental psyche and because the solutions they offer fit the country's conservative political mood. They speak to a current cultural hysteria about protecting children, and to our interminable, restless uncertainties about the roles and "nature" of women and men.
Middle-class parents have become obsessed by the need to micromanage every aspect of their children's lives, starting with the pattern chosen for an infant's crib bumper to stimulate the baby's visual system "correctly." But it's one thing to try to control a baby's synapses, and quite another to try to control a teenager's. Many adults today are frightened for their teenagers, worrying about the real and imagined dangers of sex, STD's, the Internet, drugs, and violence; but also frightened of their teenagers -- of their moodiness, unpredictability, potential for aggression.
Still, as Emily White observes in Fast Girls, "People have been afraid of teenagers for a long time." Teenagers disrupt the home, the order of things. They are awakening to sex, evoking worry and envy in their parents. Unencumbered as they are by the obligations of adulthood, they have an unquenchable longing for the rush of danger and risk. Some parental worries are, therefore, appropriate. But in today's anxious times worry is easily blown out of proportion by media scare stories. It's not enough to be frightened of teenage males, those troubled, violent "teenage time bombs" that Time warned us about; now we must fear girls, too -- and protect them not only from themselves, but from each other.
In fact, however, the worry is way out of proportion to reality. The rate of violent crimes committed by adolescents has been plummeting steadily in the last decade, according to reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and studies of representative samples of adolescents find that only a small minority are seriously troubled, angry, or unhappy. Many do suffer from peer pressure and exclusion, but extreme turmoil and unhappiness are the exception, not the rule. What problems are more common during adolescence? Conflict with parents, mood swings and depression, the familiar pain of peer rejection and comparison, and higher rates of reckless, rule-breaking, and risky behavior. Not newsy enough for Oprah.
Neither is it news that males and females, being human, share in equal measure all the attributes of humanity, its graces and furies. Neither sex, in adolescence or any other time of life, has the corner on misery. Both are equally likely to be empathic, kind, altruistic, and friendly and to be mean, hostile, aggressive, petty, conformist, and prejudiced. Both sexes can be competitive or cooperative, selfish or nurturant, loving parents or indifferent ones -- and reveal all of those qualities on different occasions.
But books about gender similarities do not sell. Taylor told me that The Tending Instinct was originally called Vital Ties, and it was meant to be about the biology and social psychology of the human need for relationships, with some attention to gender differences but by no means the whole focus. Her publisher prevailed upon her to highlight the differences and to give the book its current title, although she is well aware, as she notes in the preface, that "'instinct' is a loaded word" (as in "maternal instinct") that has been discredited.
Of course the sexes often do differ, on the average, in the forms such traits take, and those are the differences that cause all the mischief and command our attention. For example, Taylor shows how nurturing is often expressed differently in men and women: Men are more likely to be heroic and altruistic by leaping into frozen rivers and burning buildings to rescue strangers; women, by sacrificing their own needs and time to care for aged parents and others in need of routine help. Both kinds of acts are selfless; both ensure the survival of individuals and communities. A "tending society" makes sure that both are encouraged and rewarded -- whichever sex is doing them.
Today, therefore, most books on gender are themselves gendered: not only directed to women, but also written in the feminized, personal, and elusive language of popular psychology. Whether the authors are academics or journalists, many of the books tend to share a similar level, tone, and formula that is a combination of references to studies, informal interviews, lots and lots of anecdotes, and advice. There is nothing inherently wrong with this formula; the resulting book can still be interesting and useful. Lamb and Chesler offer plenty of compelling examples and studies to make their points. Indeed, I endorsed Lamb's book because, in an era when abstinence is the primary message of sex "education," and when so many adults are quite irrational about the sexual feelings of children and teenagers, I liked its spirited message that girls, too, are sexual beings -- as well as occasionally angry and aggressive beings who can learn to stand up for their rights.
But the gender-genre books that are based largely on clinical intuition and popular psychology typically lack a basic skepticism toward received wisdom and the willingness to wrestle with an idea to see who wins. Thus I read the clinical psychologist Carol Gilligan's The Birth of Pleasure, and an hour later I was hungry for a good idea. I haven't the foggiest notion what that book is about, but thousands of women will adore its soft flatteries that remind them of how they, too, were once free-spirited preteens with "authentic" voices and bold ambitions before life, patriarchy, and mean mothers crushed them. "I was drawn by the sound of an unmediated voice, a voice that broke free," Gilligan writes. "As I came back to a knowing I had learned to distance myself from or discredit, I saw girls beginning not to know what they knew." But maybe girls are also beginning to know what they didn't know. Used to be called growing up.
The typical gender-problem book starts like this: "As a girl (young woman/middle-aged woman/married woman/single woman/lesbian woman), I suffered horribly from X, Y, Z problem. I thought I was the only one. But then I talked to some other women and learned I wasn't alone! In fact, my problem was epidemic! That was so liberating!" Thus Simmons writes of her discovery that girls can be bullies: "It was exhilarating to discover we'd all been through the same ordeal. Like me, my friends had spent years believing they were the only ones." That is the ur-sentence of all female-discovery books. It doesn't matter what the "ordeal" is: They masturbated, were gay, had an eating problem, had recovered a memory of being a French princess in a previous life. The discovery, of course, must be about something heretofore hidden. "Silence," says Simmons, "is deeply woven into the fabric of the female experience." Pardon? Putting "silence" in the same sentence with "female experience" is like putting cheese in fudge. It doesn't go.
Once the epiphany (and book contract) are attained, the writer sets out to find confirming cases of her hypothesis. She will usually cite supporting articles and throw around some numbers, but those don't mean much. As Simmons acknowledges, "this book is not the product of a formal research experiment. In it you will not find statistics or scientific conclusions about girls and aggression or information about boys." Or as Chesler describes her method: "Over the years, I have interviewed more than 500 women of all ages, classes, races, sexual persuasions, religions, and professions about this subject. I have also reviewed hundreds, possibly thousands of studies that bear on the subject." That kind of thing conveys an aura of reliability, but what does it mean? What kind of interviews -- systematic or informal? How many ages, classes, religions? Did the answers vary by religion or profession? "Hundreds, possibly thousands" of studies? Well, which? Were they all equally good? What is the point of this accretion of numbers?
Again, a book does not have to be based on scientific evidence to be useful or enlightening. Scientific methods are crucial, however, if we want to know the actual prevalence of a problem, if we are willing to have our hypotheses disconfirmed, if we want to know whether and how the sexes differ, if we want to understand why a given social problem has arisen. Anecdote-driven accounts draw attention to a problem, but they fail to give us the big picture -- or an accurate one. Such books are dandelions: They look pretty and seem to cohere, but when you blow on them, they disappear.
For example, Simmons starts right out with a claim, "There is a hidden culture of girls' aggression in which bullying is epidemic, distinctive, and destructive." She explains, "Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms. Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, namecalling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims." Boys, in short, resort to physical aggression; girls to "relational" aggression.
That is true, but it is not the full truth or even the most interesting truth. For one thing, although physical aggression among girls and women is not anywhere as common or as dangerous as male violence, it is far from rare or hidden; neither are direct expressions of anger (even as these authors' own interviewees often tell them). Conversely, suppressed or misdirected anger is common among boys and men, as Columbine showed all too tragically. As for the lack of male relational aggression, does Simmons think that boys do not resort to name-calling? Boys have always had an armamentarium of offensive names: racist slurs, homophobic aspersions, cruel names for boys who are fat, slow, or "too smart." Boys do not exclude other boys of different ethnicities, or who are not as "masculine," cool, straight, athletic? Boys and men do not humiliate or "inflict psychological pain" on their victims? Boys and men do not have cliques that exclude outsiders? Simmons needs to take an academic position for a year.
In contrast, as a rare example of a book of astute insights with no pretense to science, White's Fast Girls leads the pack for its intelligent, original reportage. It would be a shame if it got lost in the crowd, because its observations are so refreshing -- free of cant, sentiment, soupy psychology, and hypocrisy about teenage sexuality. The book is a meditation about the "slut," the word and its victims, drawn from a mix of memories, interviews with students, and diverse, unusual readings from theology to sociology. I found the observations original and charming: "Like a tribe in an ancient forest telling stories about the moon," White writes, "kids tell slut stories because they need an allegory for the mystery of sex itself."
The "slut story," far from reflecting what parents imagine to be the hypersexuality of teenage girls, results in part from girls' sexual ignorance and inexperience. The media images of sexuality that girls are exposed to are sensational, prurient, and romantic, but, even today, not literal. White reports that "girls do not tend to have graphic conversations about sex the way boys do; they speak in terms of Did you ... ? Did you ... ? Thus the slut and her rumored acts exist in an elliptical darkness; her techniques are a mystery. Faced with this mystery and with no way to alleviate it, girls lash out. ... Girls hate the slut because she is a story they are not allowed in on."
The books on gender and feminism that exploded onto the cultural landscape in the 1960s and 1970s took on many of the same subjects as today's crop does, including female insecurity, backbiting, competition for men, anger, silence, sexual ignorance, and nurturance. But there is a big difference: In most of today's books, the politics and passion, the courage and anger, the analysis of the impact of culture and context on behavior have been stripped away, leaving the solipsism of one's own experience: "My troubles with my bitchy female boss" = "female bosses are bitchy." In the 1970s, social scientists like Rosabeth Moss Kanter (in Men and Women of the Corporation) showed that bitchiness was not a matter of gender, but of position in the organizational hierarchy: Bosses of either sex who have little real authority and low chances of promotion are more likely to take it out on their employees. Similarly, both sexes are more inclined to express hostility and aggression directly to those with less power than they; when they perceive no consequences to their actions; or when they feel anonymous (hence all those belligerent female drivers of SUV's). But today, bitchy behavior or aggressiveness are regarded as inflexible personality traits, inherent in a person's gender by virtue of hormones, socialization, or genetics.
Accordingly, in the spirit of the day and in full compliance with the gender-genre requirement, Wiseman, Lamb, and Simmons dispense psychological advice: how to understand your teen's behavior, how to talk to her, and how not to talk to her. (Only Emily White, again to her eternal credit, lets readers draw their own conclusions about what, if anything, to do.) Of course, there's nothing wrong with good advice, and parents may find useful suggestions in these books.
Wiseman travels the country promoting her Empower Program with its trademarked curriculum, "Owning Up." (The "empowerment" movement seems to have replaced the self-esteem business, both being efforts to help everybody feel good about themselves without, as far as I can tell, actually giving anyone actual power or a skill to feel esteem about.) Unfortunately, the only other solution that Simmons can think of is prohibition. Schools, she suggests, should prohibit not only "male" forms of bullying and aggression, such as physical assault, but also "female" forms, such as "rumor spreading, alliance building, secret telling, and severe episodes of nonverbal aggression." She seems blissfully unaware of the chilling effect such prohibitions would have on freedom of speech and assembly, let alone of how those stupid zero-tolerance rules have already been misused and directed at everyone from kindergartners to college professors. Now we are to regulate friendships and "alliances"? Ban secrets?
Psychological and punitive solutions are appealing in today's conservative times, when people don't want to think much about what it would take to create a "tending society" or make schools more appealing places to attend. The psychologizing of social problems is so much easier, because psychology directs us to look inward, to personal solutions rather than institutional changes. People cannot control the fact that peers are powerfully important to adolescents, and parents cannot force a child to "fit in" to an unwelcoming group. But they can supervise and influence the kind of peer groups their child belongs to, help the child find groups in which he or she will thrive, and press for programs that foster cooperation rather than competition among groups.
In the same spirit, as long as we keep seeing the sexes as opposite players in some unwinnable zero-sum game, rather than as allies seeking to solve a specific problem, whoever suffers from it, society's responses will careen drunkenly from one sex to the other, depending on who is making the most noise, whose problem seems worse, and whose problem makes the news this week. And as long as women focus exclusively inward on their feelings and their pasts, as long as they are lulled by the mindless if soothing hum of psychobabble, they will lack the knowledge and will to find solutions beyond the self -- and to reframe the conversation away from "us versus them," and forward to "us and them."
Carol Tavris is a social psychologist. Her books include Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Simon & Schuster, revised edition, 1989), The Mismeasure of Woman (Simon & Schuster, 1992), and, with Carole Wade, an introductory textbook, Psychology (Prentice Hall, seventh edition, 2002).
BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
The Birth of Pleasure, by Carol Gilligan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, by Emily White (Scribner, 2002)
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons (Harcourt, 2002)
Queen Bees and Wannabes: A Parent's Guide to Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman (Crown, 2002)
The Secret Lives of Girls: Sex, Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt, by Sharon Lamb (Free Press, 2002)
The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing Is Essential for Who We Are and How We Live, by Shelley E. Taylor (Times Books, 2002)
Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, by Phyllis Chesler (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2001)
Deuxième sexe, demi-siècle
Pour le cinquantenaire du best-seller philosophique de Simone de Beauvoir, les actes d'un colloque sur sa réception mondiale et son influence sur le féminisme.
Par Yannick RIPA
jeudi 04 juillet 2002
Christine Delphy dessillé, Sylvie Chaperon (sous la direction de)
«Cinquantenaire du Deuxième Sexe»
Colloque international Simone de Beauvoir
Editions Syllepse, 523 pp., 38 euros.
Avec près de soixante-dix communications extraites du colloque tenu à la Sorbonne en 1999, un véritable festin beauvoirien. En entrée, les analyses sur «La philosophie du Deuxième Sexe, Matérialisme, corps et sexualité», en plat de résistance les indispensables «Débats féministes contemporains», déclinés moins à partir de la célèbre formule «On ne naît pas femme, on le devient» qu'autour de l'ironique interrogation «Faut-il le devenir ?». Enfin, les «Réceptions et traductions» de l'essai, best-seller mondial, autant d'échos des spécificités nationales face à ce qu'on nommait alors «la question féminine». Révélatrices sont sur ce point les distorsions ou les trahisons de certaines versions. Le Deuxième Sexe fut souvent traduit par l'Autre Sexe ; ce titre insiste sur la définition sociale du féminin qui traverse le livre et en fait d'emblée «une oeuvre majeure de la radicalité antinaturaliste». Cette véritable rupture épistémologique ouvre la voie à l'élaboration, près de trente ans plus tard, du concept de genre. Stevi Jackson questionne celui-ci à partir du présupposé beauvoirien selon lequel le genre social repose sur le sexe biologique, ultimes traces chez l'auteur d'essentialisme, dont hériterait la seconde vague du féminisme français. Cet article plaide pour un combat contre «l'idée du corps comme donnée biologique», et défend une relation genre/sexe qui fait du genre le créateur du sexe anatomique ; il rendrait pertinent «une différence anatomique en elle-même dépourvue d'implications sociales» (Delphy).
On saura gré à tous les auteurs de ne tomber ni dans l'hagiographie ni dans la critique décontextualisée de l'oeuvre. Ainsi son antinaturalisme est-il regardé à l'aune de la première moitié du siècle et de la solitude de l'auteure malgré l'existentialisme ; s'il y a inachèvement de l'antinaturalisme beauvoirien, sa radicalisation s'exprime dans la suite de sa production et dans son engagement féministe ultérieur. Les questions les plus critiquées sont revues sans concession (la maternité, la frigidité, le lesbianisme) en des réflexions qui font le lien entre la philosophie, le féminisme et le quotidien des femmes, d'aujourd'hui encore.
Ces articles s'adressent aux lecteurs avertis du livre philosophique, édité comme tel et enfin étudié dans nos universités qui l'ont souvent négligé, laissant encore croire aux Etats-Unis au désintérêt des Français(e)s. On suit Beauvoir sur le chemin qui la mène de la théorie à la praxis, du «je» au «nous», en un engagement qui dépasse celui de ses combats antérieurs qui «procédaient plus d'un choix éthique que politique stricto sensu» (Halimi). Il répond aux appels des actrices majeures du MLF. Elles l'évoquent aujourd'hui dans des confidences d'amitié au Castor qui marqua «l'Histoire et [leur] histoire». Très loin des hommages convenus, les souvenirs d'Anne Zélensky, l'une des initiatrices du Manifeste des 343, cofondatrice avec Simone de Beauvoir de la Ligue du droit des femmes, lui restituent sa fonction à «l'articulation de deux mondes, celui du passé et de celui qui se prépare», la voilà «passeuse», «éclaireuse sur des chemins inédits». Pour les dessiner, la prise de conscience était nécessaire, elle fut offerte à de nombreuses femmes qui avaient peut-être acheté l'ouvrage dans une version éditoriale racoleuse, sans préjuger d'un contenu qui allait bouleverser leur existence. Dans ce «livre de gare», elles ont trouvé le reflet de leur souffrance, les mots pour la nommer, les explications pour la comprendre et donc la refuser. Des milliers de lettres envoyées à l'auteure en témoignent.
Le Deuxième Sexe donne une nouvelle respiration aux femmes des démocraties, il fournit une bouffée d'oxygène aux victimes des dictatures et d'un patriarcat archaïque. Dans l'Espagne franquiste, le livre circule sous le manteau et fait le lit de la renaissance féministe qui s'envole à la mort du Caudillo ; très loin dans un camp de Palestine, Samia Issa pleure à quinze ans d'avoir été comprise et, les yeux dessillés, s'engage dans le Front populaire qui promet la libération des femmes... Avaient-ils mesuré l'ampleur des ondes de choc que pouvait libérer le Deuxième Sexe, tous ces vilipendeurs injurieux qu'on relit avec étonnement ? Le danger face à un simple livre qui deviendra la «bible du féminisme» unit en paroles des écrivains catholiques et d'inattendus moralistes, mais aussi l'Eglise et le PC : en une belle sincérité, Dominique Desanti se souvient du sectarisme et de l'aveuglement de ses intellectuel(le)s.
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, By Carol Gilligan, 1993, Harvard University Press
My questions are about psychological processes and theory, particularly theories in which men's experience stands for all of human experience--theories which eclipse the lives of women and shut out women's voices. I saw that by maintaining these ways of seeing and speaking about human lives, men were leaving out women, but women were leaving out themselves (p. xiii)
My work is grounded in listening. (p. xiii)
To have a voice is to be human. To have something to say is to be a person. But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act. By voice I mean something like what people mean when they speak of the core of the self. Voice is natural and also cultural. It is composed of breath and sound, words, rhythm, and language. and voice is a powerful psychological instrument and channel, connecting inner and outer worlds. (p. xvi)
[Anne Barton says in the introduction to Love's Labour's Lost that] men do not know the women whom they say they love. (p. xvii)
. . . the so-called objective position which Kohlberg and others espoused within the canon of traditional social science research was blind to the particularities of voice and the inevitable constructions that constitute point of view. (p. xviii)
I find the question of whether gender differences are biologically determined or socially constructed to be deeply disturbing. This way of posing the question implies that people, women and men alike, are either genetically determined or a product of socialization--that there is no voice--and without voice, there is no possibility for resistance, for creativity, or for a change whose wellsprings are psychological. At its most troubling, the present reduction of psychology either to sociology or biology or some combination of the two prepares the way for the kind of control that alarmed Hannah Arendt and George Orwell. (p. xix)
The differences between women and men which I describe center on a tendency for women and men to make different relational errors -- for men to think that if they know themselves, following Socrates' dictum, they will also know women, and for women to think that if only they know others, they will come to know themselves. (p. xx)
Joining this understanding of women's psychological development with theories of human development which turn out to be theories about men, I have arrived at the following working theory: that the relational crisis which men typically experience in early childhood occurs for women in adolescence, that this relational crisis in boys and girls involves a disconnection from women which is essential to the perpetuation of patriarchal societies, and that women's psychological development is potentially revolutionary not only because of women's situation but also because of girls' resistance. (p. xxiii)
I wrote In a Different Voice to bring women's voices into psychological theory and to reframe the conversation between women and men. (p. xxvi)
Psychological theorists . . . implicitly adopting the male life as the norm, have tried to fashion women out of a masculine cloth. (p. 6)
In the life cycle, as in the Garden of Eden, the woman has been the deviant. (p. 6)
Since it is difficult to say “different” without saying “better” or “worse,” since there is a tendency to construct a single scale of measurement, and since that scale has generally been derived from and standardized on the basis of men’s interpretations of research data drawn predominantly or exclusively from studies of males, psychologists “have tended to regard male behaviour as the ‘norm’ and female behaviour as some kind of deviation from that norm” (p. 14, citing McClelland, 1975, p. 81)
When women do not conform to the standards of psychological expectation, the conclusion has generally been that something is wrong with the women. (p. 14)
While women have taken care of men, men have, in their theories of psychological development, tended to assume or devalue that care. (p. 17)
The discovery now being celebrated by men in mid-life of the importance of intimacy, relationships, and care is something that women have known from the beginning. (p. 17)
The conception of morality as concerned with the activity of care centers moral development around the understanding of responsibility and relationships, just as the conception of morality as fairness ties moral development to the understanding of rights and rules. (p. 19)
The elusive mystery of women's development lies in its recognition of the continuing importance of attachment in the human life cycle. (p. 23)
Only when life-cycle theorists divide their attention and begin to live with women as they have lived with men will their vision encompass the experience of both sexes and their theories become correspondingly more fertile. (p. 23)
As we have listened for centuries to the voices of men and the theories of development that their experience informs, so we have come more recently to notice not only the silence of women but the difficulty in hearing what they say when they speak. Yet in the different voice of women lies the truth of an ethic of care, the tie between relationship and responsibility, and the origins of aggression in the failure of connection. (p. 174)
The failure to see the different reality of women's lives and to hear the differences in their voices stems in part from the assumption that there is a single mode of social experience and interpretation. (p. 174)
Summer 2002 | Vol. 12, No. 3
The End of Herstory
Kay S. Hymowitz
When you ask young women today if they think of themselves as feminists, more often than not they will pause for a moment. Then they will answer something like: “Well, I believe in equal pay for equal work,” or “Yes, I do believe women should have choices,” or “Of course, I believe women should have equal rights.”
If these are the principles that define feminism, then we are all feminists now. And the future belongs to feminism, too: a 2001 American Demographics survey of adolescent girls entitled “The Granddaughters of Feminism” found that 97 percent believe women should be paid equally, while 92 percent believe “lifestyle choices” should not be limited by sex. Curiously, the war on terror has, if anything, solidified our commitment to women’s rights, though orthodox feminists opposed it as another dangerous example of “the cult of masculinity.” The sight of women forced to scurry about in sacks brought home to Americans just how much they treasured their freedoms, including those won for women over the past decades. For a remarkable moment, President Bush and Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority, which had long tried to bring Taliban mistreatment of women to the State Department’s attention, seemed members of the same party—which, seen against the backdrop of radical Islam, they actually are.
But how do we explain that pause that comes when you ask women if they consider themselves part of the movement? The truth is, very few Americans are capital “F” Feminists. Polls show that only about a quarter of women are willing to accept the label. Younger women seem no more comfortable with the title than their grandmothers were. Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, has admitted that the elite young women who 20 years ago would have been the generals of the movement are feminists “by attitude . . . [but] are not interested in hearing about organized movements or activism.” They mostly do not join NOW or read Ms. magazine. They don’t think of themselves as second-class citizens of the patriarchy, or follow “women’s issues” in the news, and their marital status seems as likely to predict how they will vote as their sex.
Activists who try to make sense of these young feminists who are not Feminists conclude that the movement has an image problem. The reason so many people believe in feminist goals yet reject the label, they say, is that the media have given us a cartoon picture of liberationists as humorless, Birkenstock-wearing man-haters, our era’s version of the old-fashioned spinster. Feminism is still an “unfinished revolution,” they say, and young women share its goals. They just don’t like the packaging.
But this explanation falls far short. Feminism is not simply suffering from a P.R. problem. It’s just over. As in finished.
Supporters will smile and reply that the movement has been read its last rites often during its lifetime. What’s different now, though, is that feminism appears not so much dead as obsolete. Yes, it has bred a generation of empowered young women. But rooted in a utopian politics that longs to transcend both biology and ordinary bourgeois longings, it cannot address the realities of the lives that it has helped to change. Young women know this, even if their mothers do not.
Up until a year ago, Amanda Laforge could have served as a poster girl for Ms. After graduating from Boston University, she went to American University law school. When she married, she kept her maiden name and her job with the Maryland secretary of state. When she got pregnant, she continued commuting 45 minutes to her new job at the state attorney general’s office. When the baby came, she planned to take three months’ maternity leave, and then return to the office for a continued climb up the career ladder.
It didn’t turn out that way. Instead of becoming super career mom, she quit her job. Yet she shows no symptoms of Oppressed Housewife Syndrome. Isn’t she bored? “No. I love it.” Does she miss her job? “I do miss working—or at least having colleagues. I’ve started to look for part-time work.” Does she worry that she is not her husband’s equal? “I feel superior to my husband,” she sniffs. “Women are much more powerful.” But won’t her career suffer? “I’m struggling with this personally right now. I know I’ve already compromised my ability to reach the height of my career. But I see a lot of room to make up.” Is it so easy to put aside your career? “No, but I had friends whose mothers were career women who just got caught up in something. Now they’ve worked for 25 or 30 years for X company, and they didn’t get to such enormous heights. Would their lives have been that much different if they had worked part-time? I know a lot of fairly educated people,” Amanda concludes, “and no one is looking for more time at the office.”
It would be a big mistake to see Amanda as a return to 1950s milk-and-cookies motherhood or as evidence of the backlash that Feminists announce with every article by Katie Roiphe. It would be equally wrong to conclude that most young mothers today are quitting work to be with their babies. Many are; but many others are working part-time, or two days a week at the office, say, and three at home. And, yes, many others are going back to work full-time.
But regardless of how they arrange their lives, women like Amanda illustrate a truth that Feminism never anticipated and is still busily denying: after the revolution, women want husbands and children as much as they want anything in life. It’s not that the daughters and granddaughters of feminism don’t respect those who forgo marriage and motherhood: in the American Demographics poll, 89 percent of adolescent girls said a woman does not need a man to be a success, and the percentage of single women between 35 and 44 has increased significantly since 1960. But the vast majority of young women continue to tell pollsters that they want to marry and have children, and they go on to do so. Census experts predict that upward of 90 percent of today’s young women will eventually marry, which means, remarkably enough, that women today tie the knot at a rate similar to that of their grandmothers. Moreover, even with the widely publicized decline in fertility in recent decades, a large majority of women will also become mothers; as of 2000, 81 percent of women aged 40 to 44 had given birth to at least one child.
After giving birth, moreover, not many embrace the one preferred Feminist solution to liberated motherhood: dropping the baby off at the day-care center for 50 hours a week. According to another American Demographics study, having come from broken or latchkey homes, most Gen X-ers think the best arrangement is for one parent to stay home with the kids, a belief that other polls suggest the majority of Americans share. This usually means Mom, even after three decades of feminism and a concerted effort to get fathers to man the nursery. A 1996 Census Bureau report shows that 42 percent of children under five have a parent at home full-time, another 19.4 percent part-time—and the large majority of these parents are women. The latest Census Bureau numbers show that 55 percent of women with infants were in the workforce in 2000, compared with 59 percent two years earlier—the first such decline since 1979.
It’s no wonder that Feminists have a hard time accepting that trends like these could represent what women actually want. After all, Feminists of the 1960s and 70s took to the streets on the premise that women wanted to escape from the prison house of the bourgeois home and take up positions in the office and the boardroom, where the real power lies. Women consigned to the role of housewife and mother measured out their days with baby spoons and dirty socks, but work, it seemed to these followers of Betty Friedan, would give them adventure, self-expression, freedom. In the seventies, the offices of Ms. and other feminist organizations sported signs proclaiming women working!
Echoes of this kind of thinking still resound in aging Feminist circles. In her recent book, Flux, for example, Peggy Orenstein explains that work or career “requires the assertion of self,” whereas in wifehood and motherhood “your whole identity as a person gets swallowed up.” In the same vein, several years ago a successful screenwriter of about 50 told me that she was contemplating divorce. When I expressed sympathetic alarm, she hastened to explain that there was nothing wrong with her marriage; it was just that “I hate that word ‘wife.’ It’s not who I am.”
Such talk has about as much resonance as “Remember the Maine!” for younger women. For one thing, the romance of work—what might be called the Feminist mystique—has faded. Young women, as more than one I interviewed put it, are far more likely to feel pressure to be “super career women” than to play Ozzie’s Harriet. That doesn’t mean that those fortunate enough to have challenging jobs don’t take great pride in their accomplishments or enjoy the intellectual stimulation they get at the office. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of young women as fiercely ambitious as Duddy Kravitz. But many are put off by the single-minded careerism they associate with Feminism. In Feminist Fatale: Voices of the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Women’s Movement, Paula Kamen interviewed a number of such skeptics. “There are many women in this field in their late thirties who don’t have a family and their entire social life revolves around the job and people [on the job],” says one twentysomething. “I think that’s horrible.”
Remember also that the majority of women in their twenties and thirties watched their own mothers go to work but didn’t see adventurers and heroines. They saw tired women complaining about their bosses and counting the days until the next vacation, just as women their mothers’ age saw their fathers doing. And they know from personal experience that taking a meeting with a client or lunching with colleagues involves every bit as much of the role-playing that Feminists wanted to escape. “I worked 60 hours a week from the time I got out of college till I got pregnant,” one Boston-area 30-year-old marketing executive said. “I was tired of it. My job is not emotionally fulfilling. I like it, but it’s just a job.”
In short, for these women the personal is not political—it’s, well . . . personal. Even the most ambitious young women refuse to judge the housewife as, in Betty Friedan’s words, a “waste of human self.” Sara Ely Hulse, a recently married 26-year-old CBS producer proud of her “independent nature,” would seem a logical candidate for Feminist skepticism toward housewifery: her career is so promising that she and her husband consider appointing him the main caregiver when they have children. But when I asked whether she looked down on her mother, who had stayed at home to raise her and her two sisters, she answered heatedly: “Oh God, no! I loved having someone to come home to every day.” A young D.C. lawyer-mother I interviewed, though she went back to work three months after giving birth, is also entirely sympathetic to stay-at-homes. After all, when she gets together with friends, she says, “All we talk about is our babies.”
Nothing illustrates this reclaiming of the personal more clearly than the Mrs. question. For sixties feminists, becoming Mrs. John Smith epitomized both women’s second-class status and their economic and psychological dependence on men. Indeed, former NOW president Patricia Ireland wrote in her recent memoir, What Women Want, that a woman taking her husband’s name “signifies the loss of her very existence as a person under the law.” Pshaw, younger women say; it doesn’t mean anything of the sort. You can keep your name if you want—and many women do, as often for practical as for philosophical reasons. You can hyphenate your name or use your maiden name for work and your married name everywhere else. Or if you want to have the same name as your husband and children, go for it. “A lot of women in my office said keeping your maiden name is a hassle, like when the school calls, or the kids’ doctor, and asks for you using the child’s last name,” the independent-minded Sara Hulse said. “I hate hyphenated names—so I changed my name.” The D.C. lawyer explained that her decision to use her husband’s name was prompted by her experience growing up with a divorced and remarried mother. “I had a different name from my mother,” she recalls, “and it always bothered me.”
Single women, especially those in their later twenties and early thirties, have other reasons to feel impatient with the Feminist mystique. They followed the careerist script to a tee: they worked until 10 pm, got flashy jobs, fought for promotions. Meanwhile, they had sex when they felt like it, indifferent to whether their partner was husband material or not; they lived with their boyfriends, shrugged when that didn’t work out, and moved on to the next one. But after some years of this, many are surprised to find that the single life is less like Sex and the City than The Apartment.
“Sex is an easily attainable, feminist-approved goal, one that carries less stigma than admitting to loneliness or desperately wanting emotional connection with a man,” writes Katherine Marsh in a Washington Monthly article, in one of several youthful critiques of Feminism that have recently appeared. “While feminists can solidly advise on how to get rid of a man—obtaining a fair divorce or a restraining order against an abusive spouse—it’s fairly mute on how to find love and live with a decent man.” Vanessa Grigoriadis, writing in a recent New York Magazine article, tells of a woman whose parents, in thrall to the feminist career mystique, refused to pay for a wedding if she married before 30. But now she and her peers are feeling uneasy. “These days, the independence that seemed so fabulous—at least to those of us who tend to use that word a lot—doesn’t anymore.”
These younger women are especially peeved that, in promoting female independence, Feminism denied biological realities that now loom large. Feminists often like to talk about the “click”—the moment when a woman experiences discrimination so clearly that she sees her whole life in a radically new light. For a lot of younger women, the “click” moment has now arrived in a totally unexpected form. With the torrent of media coverage following the recent publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life—publicity that focused on the fertility problems of older high-achieving women—everything looks different. For just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no Feminists in the throes of fertility anxiety.
“I’m 28 and grew up in Manhattan, attended a competitive private high school and a liberal-arts college,” marvels Grigoriadis, “and at no point did anyone bring up the notion that the sexes were anything but equal. To me, it seemed like ideology was going to triumph over biology.” The “unwillingness to confront the personal—more precisely the feminine personal—is the biggest failure of the Second Wave,” Sarah Blustain, the 32-year-old managing editor of The New Republic, has written. (“Second Wave” feminism is sixties and seventies feminism; First Wavers were the suffragettes.) “It’s why the movement has refused to deal with the fact that even after the Revolution, many women want to marry men and bear their children. . . . It’s why, just this month, Time ran on its cover another installment of the Baby vs. Career story that drove women I know to tears for reminding us of the incredible double bind.”
Even young women who embrace the Feminist label have a beef with Sisterly avoidance of “the feminine personal.” Susan Jane Gilman, author of Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess, is one of Feminism’s more dutiful daughters in many ways—her pet issues include abortion rights, sexual harassment, and domestic violence—yet she says: “For women today, feminism is often perceived as dreary. As elitist, academic, Victorian, whiny, and passé.” Young women Gilman’s age don’t remember the thrill of the bra-burning, let’s-do-it-in-the-road seventies; instead they went to the thin-lipped, Catherine MacKinnon school of Feminism, where they learned that even their younger brothers were potential harassers, even rapists. They’re having none of it. Calling themselves girlie feminists, lipstick feminists, or sometimes just Third Wavers, they have taken to flaunting the very femininity that Feminists had scolded would lead men to objectify them.
If there is a beauty myth, these renegades are true believers. They want their lip gloss, their Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and their MTV. Oxford student Chelsea Clinton, pictured recently cuddling with her boyfriend in a Venetian gondola and at a Paris fashion show with a deep décolletage and enough mascara to paint a fence, appears to be a girlie feminist. At her age, her mother sported geeky glasses and unkempt hair, emblems of the I’ve-got-more-important-things-on-my-mind-than-attracting-a-man branch of Feminism, the Second Wave incarnate.
Still, it is more than nail polish that makes these daughters very different from what their mothers envisioned when they groomed them to take over the family business. For all their in-your-face sexual bravado, girlie feminists can be unabashed traditionalists. Consider Bust, a girlie Internet ‘zine that describes itself as “the magazine for women with something to get off their chests.” With its signature T-shirts that say KISS MY ASS and TOUGH TITTIES, and its pronouncement of “The New Girl Order,” Bust is full of Erica Jongish, zipless-sex Attitude. Yet as the title of one article, “A Bad Girl’s Guide to Good Housekeeping,” suggests, the hipness coexists with more conventional desires. A recent chat room offering “A Feminist Analysis of the Baby Scare” was less MacKinnon than Bride. “I’m conflicted,” one participant wrote. “Did some feminists drop the ball on this one? Have we understated the power of biology?” Another contributor was just mad: “I am not a mother and I am still not sure if/when I will be one,” she wrote. “But it really depresses me that if I do choose to get knocked up before the age of 30, that I will be looked upon as nothing more than a tool of the patriarchy. Sisterhood is powerful. Baloney.”
What all this suggests is a vast and sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth generation gap between Feminists and their progeny. “A woman in her twenties or thirties and I are in parallel universes, as if we were in two different countries,” Gloria Steinem has admitted. Being the out-of-touch oldtimers is especially painful for aging boomer-Feminists, once so proud of being in the vanguard. In the course of researching her recent history of the women’s movement, Susan Brownmiller looked up many old activist acquaintances and found them “very depressed” at their irrelevance. Other Second Wavers get prickly: how can these youngsters be so ignorant of what is at stake here?
Lisa Belkin, a New York Times reporter who covers the “work/life” beat and frequently recounts her own attempts to balance her enviable career with two young sons and a husband, was recently on the receiving end of this irritability, when Maureen Corrigan, a boomer Georgetown literature professor, reviewed her new collection of columns, Life’s Work. Corrigan blasted the younger woman’s failure to show more respect for the Second Wave legacy. Where Belkin cheerfully accepts the inevitable tensions between her career and family life, Corrigan spies the “small pathologies of an unfinished revolution.” Where the frankly ambitious Belkin nevertheless acknowledges that the stresses of her husband’s job as a pediatric cardiologist make her own deadline pressures seem less intense, Corrigan frets that young women should “stop apologizing for having professional ambitions and minds of their own.” And when Belkin describes the confusion that sometimes comes from using her maiden name at work and her husband’s name socially, Corrigan explodes: this young woman has a “weirdly reactionary split personality,” she snarls. “Why [did] she choose to create problems for herself by taking her husband’s last name in the first place?”
Meanwhile, the younger generation concludes that older women just don’t get it. Peggy Orenstein, who in her late thirties is old enough to be a card-carrying member of the Sisterhood but young enough to know that the future needs attending to, traveled around the country asking 200 women about their attitudes toward work, romance, and family for her recent book, Flux. She was puzzled to find women who share neither her passion for work nor her ambivalence toward marriage and motherhood. During the question period after a speech at Washington University, a student burst out: “I don’t want to have to wait until I’m thirty-five to have kids!” Orenstein’s priceless reaction speaks volumes about the chasm between the New Girl Order and the Second Wave Old Guard. “I nodded too, sympathetically. It really wasn’t fair. Then suddenly, I thought, ‘Wait a minute! I’m nearly thirty-seven and I don’t have children yet. These women don’t want to be me.’ ”
Of course, many older Feminists are shocked—shocked!—that their daughters’ generation could think that they looked down their noses at the feminine personal. “The notion that the women’s movement denigrates women who choose the traditional roles of wife and mother is arrant nonsense,” columnist Molly Ivins writes emphatically. She might want to sign up for a few women’s studies classes at Yale or the University of Texas or check out the current literature from NOW. What she’ll find is not just hostility to “traditional roles” but a tight-wound ambivalence toward the biological urges that young women now so loudly affirm and a hostility to bourgeois life that few young women share.
Take the Feminist attitude toward marriage. When college women sit at the knee of their female elders, they may well read from the widely used textbook Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices. There they will learn that “the institution of marriage and the role of ‘wife’ are intimately connected with the subordination of women in society in general.” For the teachers, this attitude isn’t just theoretical. Daphne Patai, co-author of Professing Feminism and author of Heterophobia, books critical of the women’s studies industry, recounts a lunch with other female academics, at which one announces she is getting married. The response: shocked, dead, embarrassed silence.
Yet Feminist hostility to marriage goes beyond the view that it makes women second-class citizens. Feminists also cling to the ideal of the post-bourgeois, liberated woman, who not only doesn’t need a man but also rejects conventional middle-class life in favor of a self-created, adventurous independence. When Gloria fish-without-a-bicycle Steinem married in 2000, for example, she evidently felt she had to lend her act a heroic, anti-bourgeois cast. “I had no desire to get married and neither did he,” she said—but “it seems rebellious at 66.”
Motherhood too interests orthodox Feminists only insofar as it overturns bourgeois norms. NOW, for example, fiercely supports single welfare mothers and bristles at any reform that might try to encourage them to go to regular jobs or—God forbid—to marry. Ireland got herself arrested at a 1996 demonstration at the Capitol when the House passed “the Republican welfare bill that would have plunged millions of women and children deeper into poverty,” as she put it in her memoir. Though child poverty and overall poverty have declined since welfare reform, NOW has failed to acknowledge its error. In addition, the group continues to sound the alarm against current proposals to promote marriage. As Kim Gandy, the current NOW president, says, the plan reminds her of her backward “grandmother’s friends say[ing], ‘Honey, when are you going to get married?’ ”
Still, the NOW folks can believe in the happily-ever-after—as long as they’re talking about lesbians. NOW heavily promotes gay marriage and adoption—not, like other advocates, as a civil rights issue, but because they view lesbian liaisons and motherhood as a means of subverting conventional marriage and sex roles. Norah Vincent, a Los Angeles Times columnist and a gay libertarian, dismisses the organization’s support. “It’s the old Marxist agenda. Feminists see gay people as the newest proletariat. They want to overthrow the old bourgeois system. It’s not my agenda.” She adds that she and her girlfriend often joke that they would love nothing more than a traditional middle-class life. “We think of advertising: ‘Two women willing to do housework and take care of children in return for a husband.’ ”
But while Feminists can get as misty as a Hallmark card over lesbian and welfare mothers, they cast a colder eye upon the other 90 percent of women who might look longingly inside Snuglis and baby carriages. Phyllis Chesler, author of the Second-Wave best-seller Women and Madness, recounts that, when she became pregnant in the late seventies, friends begged her not to have a child, which would cause her to abandon the movement. These days, when faced with young female baby hunger, Second Wavers are still acting as skittish as Hugh Hefner. Last fall, for example, alarmed at infertility problems they were seeing in the increasing number of women putting off childbearing into their forties, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine launched an ad campaign warning that “Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children.” But where the doctors were focusing on the gap they observed between medical fact and wishful thinking on the part of contemporary women, one that had already brought many to grief, the Feminists spied only the ever-lurking bourgeois backlash against the heroic career woman. “There is an antifeminist agenda that says we should go back to the 1950’s,” Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a frequent commentator on Feminist issues, pronounced in Time. “The subliminal message is ‘Don’t get too educated; don’t get too successful or too ambitious.’ ”
And here we come to the primary reason for Feminism’s descent into irrelevance. Whereas most young women will at some point want babies like they want food, for Feminists, motherhood is the ten-ton boulder in the path of genuine liberation. It mucks up ambition, turning fabulous heroines of the workplace—killer lawyers, 24/7 businesswomen, and ruthless senator wannabes—into bourgeois wifies and mommies. It hinders absolute equality, since women with children don’t usually crash through glass ceilings. They resist traveling three days a week to meet with hotshot clients; they look at their watches frequently and make a lot of personal phone calls.
Nothing irks a movement Feminist more than news of a Sister packing in a high-powered career. Candice Carpenter, who when she married left her position as CEO of iVillage, changed her name, and joined the ranks of stay-at-home mothers, earned the wrath of Brandeis professor Linda Hirshman, who called her “the born-again Stepford wife.” When presidential aide Karen Hughes announced that she was leaving Washington because her family was “homesick” for Texas, Hirshman was equally incensed, blasting Hughes’s husband for not “supporting her career” and for failing to promote “justice in the private world of the family.”
Feminists deal with the unsettling fact that, even after the revolution, women persist in wanting to be mothers in two ways. The first tack is simple denial. Amazingly, given young women’s preoccupation with how to balance work and motherhood, neither NOW nor the Feminist Majority, the movement’s two most influential organizations, includes maternity leave, flex time, or even day care on its list of vital issues.
The other tack, favored by academic Feminists, is a more complex denial. Yes, women may want babies, they concede; but that doesn’t mean they want motherhood—at least not motherhood as it has been “constructed” by the patriarchy throughout history. For these theorists, only a social arrangement that makes men and women exactly equal co-parents—at work precisely the same number of hours, and taking care of the children precisely the same number of hours—is acceptable. In a recent article in The American Prospect, Janet Gornick averaged out the number of hours worked by mothers of children under three (23) and those worked by fathers (44) and proclaimed the egalitarian goal: both Mom and Dad should work 33.5 hours a week. It is not enough to give men and women more flexibility and choices about how to organize their lives; the goal is “unbending gender,” as American University law professor Joan Williams puts it in her book of that title. Williams rejects what she calls “choice rhetoric”; a woman who thinks she is freely choosing to stay home is just fooling herself, in thrall to the “ideology of domesticity.”
Feminists who share Williams’s and Gornick’s goals aren’t about to let biology get in the way of their plans for utopian parity. Though they don’t go as far as those 1970s radicals who looked forward to growing fetuses outside the womb, they search for ways to make every aspect of motherhood a 50-50 proposition. In Woman: An Intimate Geography, for instance, Natalie Angier comes up with one idea about “sharing” breastfeeding: if the father would just rock the baby between feedings “against his naked breast,” then men too could have “a visceral connection with a newborn.”
Little wonder that few women in their twenties and thirties seek to complete this so-called unfinished revolution. They don’t yearn for the radical transformation of biological restraints and bourgeois aspirations devoutly wished by stalwarts. Even those few who want more androgynous sex roles for themselves don’t wish to impose them on others. Yes, they took women’s studies courses—often only to satisfy their college’s diversity requirement—but they came away unimpressed. To many of them, Feminism today represents not liberation but its opposite: a life that must be lived according to a strict, severe ideology. The younger generation, on the other hand, wants a liberation “that isn’t just freedom to choose [but] . . . freedom from having to justify one’s choices,” as Jennifer Foote Sweeney has put it in Salon. In short, they’re ready to de-politicize the personal.
But none of this means that the second sex is entirely at peace in the New Girl—or the New Woman—Order. There is a deep tension between young family values and female ambition that will spark many years of cultural debate—and it’s not just about who’s going to do the laundry or take the kids to the pediatrician. There is still plenty of grumbling on that score, of course: in her recent study For Better or For Worse, for example, Mavis Hetherington found that two-thirds of married women complained about the disproportionate burden of house and child care that falls on their shoulders (though she also found that traditional families, with breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife, had the lowest rate of divorce).
But more important, biology simply disagrees with our careerist culture. The evidence is that, even after 30 years of the Feminist mystique, women may want men to help out more, but they still want to be the primary parent and nester-in-chief. The Motherhood Report, a 1989 survey of over 1,000 mothers, found that, while three-quarters of women want men to pitch in more, their goal is not 50-50 parenting. They like being boss at home. Suzanne Braun Levine’s 2000 Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First suggests that in this department not much has changed in the past ten years. Levine went searching for “the second stage of the gender role revolution”—couples who defy all traditional mommy-daddy divisions. She found some who, with much struggling, were doing so (although you don’t have to be Robert Young to think that her description of the brutal, dawn-to-midnight, pass-the-baton existence of some of her couples—think of it as X-treme domesticity—makes Father Knows Best look like a sane alternative). But she also finds, contrary to the Feminist picture of the patriarchy foisting unwanted roles on women, that it is often the second sex, who, wanting to be the first sex in the nursery, undermines these arrangements.
In my own interviews, I found that young women are not especially nervous about thinking of this stubborn clinging to traditional roles as based in biology. When you ask if there are innate differences between the sexes, they talk comfortably in some of the terms that would satisfy an evolutionary psychologist. They generally believe that women have a closer bond with babies. They see that women usually play what one thirtyish lawyer called “household executive.” And they’re not especially worried about it. “I don’t see it as injustice unless [women] are denied opportunity,” one lawyer shrugged. As Norah Vincent concludes, “Equal does not mean the same.”
The sharpest tension in the lives of the post-Feminist young comes from a workplace designed for people who can put in long, consecutive hours—mainly men and childless women. Mothers, as well as many fathers, want jobs with more flexibility through job sharing, part-time hours, and leaves of absence. And they want the assurance that they can get back on the fast track when the demands of child-rearing ease off. More discussion and lobbying about these issues in the future is certain. Right now, for instance, Anne Crittenden, the author of The Price of Motherhood, is launching a lobbying group called MOTHER (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights), dedicated to promoting more family-friendly workplaces, improved benefits for mothers, and a reduction of the “mommy tax.”
Still, this tension can’t be entirely, or even mostly, resolved. The difficult truth is that the very economy that stirs the imaginations and ambitions of young people—that makes them work 80 hours a week in a start-up business, that makes them want to learn new skills or take on extra duties so that they can get promoted or start their own businesses—is the same economy that will never be especially family-friendly and that often leaves even ambitious working mothers behind. Those who long for the Western European model, with its shorter workweeks, longer vacation times, and generous maternity and paternity leaves, fail to see that those more regulated economies also produce less excitement, less creativity, less opportunity, less money, less of what I’ve called “ecstatic capitalism.” Western European workers don’t work as hard; they also don’t have as many opportunities to create new businesses, develop new skills, and get rich.
Many women seem to understand this reality. A number of those I interviewed said that their crisis-driven jobs made part-time hours either impossible or a sure route to less interesting assignments. They did not blame their employers; they were quick to admit that if you tell clients that the person handling their case or account won’t be in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you’re going to lose them. All of the co-parenting fathers in Levine’s book have had to give up not just Saturday golf but also dreams of writing a novel or of making partner. In such marriages, women are not the only ones who can’t have it all. To these couples, everybody wins—Levine’s male subjects appear pleased with how close they are to their children; but everybody loses, too.
The more immediate point, however, is that while younger women are struggling with how to balance work and family, they have said good-bye to the radical dreams of Feminism. Case in point: Rachel Foster, a Brooklyn mother of two young children who is on leave from her job as a Legal Aid lawyer. Foster is the great-granddaughter of William Foster, the founder of the American Communist Party, and his wife, Esther Peterson, a once well-known free-love nudist, who raised Rachel’s grandfather in an anarchist community. She is the daughter of a social-worker mother who worked from the time Rachel was five weeks old. Foster expects to return eventually to “social justice and advocacy.” But right now, as the largely content stay-at-home wife of a real-estate developer, one thing’s for sure: she’s not looking to live like her great-grandparents.