Those aspects of life -- whether it's the pleasure of being a wife or of raising children or of making a home -- were, until the day before yesterday, considered the most natural things in the world. After all, our grandmothers didn't agonize over such existential questions as to whether marriage was ultimately "right" for them as women or if having a baby would "compromise" them as individuals. Yet we do. We approach these aspects of life warily and self-consciously: A new bride adjusts her veil in the mirror and frets that she is selling out to some false idea of femininity; a new wife is horrified to find herself slipping into the habit of cooking dinner and doing the laundry; a new mother, who has spent years climbing the corporate ladder, is thrown into an identity crisis when she's stuck at home day after day, in a sweatsuit, at the mercy of a crying infant. It is because of feminism's success that we now call these parts of our lives into question, that we don't thoughtlessly march down the aisle, take up our mops, and suppress our ambitions. But feminism, for all its efforts, hasn't been able to banish fundamental female desires from us, either -- and we simply cannot be happy if we ignore them.
For if we, as women, were all to sit down and honestly attempt to figure out what sort of lives would make us happy, I suspect -- assuming the basics like food and adequate income and leaving aside fantasies of riches and celebrity -- that most of our answers would be very similar to one another's, and quite different from men's. They would go something like this: We want to marry husbands who will love and respect us; we want to have children; we want to be good mothers. At the same time, many of us will want to pursue interests outside of our families, interests that will vary from woman to woman, depending upon her ambition and talent. Some women will be content with work or involvements that can be squeezed in around their commitments at home; some women will want or need to work at a job, either full- or part-time. Other women will be more ambitious -- they may want to be surgeons or corporate executives or lawyers or artists. For them, the competing demands of family and work will always be difficult to resolve. But I think when we compare our conditions for happiness, most of our lists would share these essentials: husband, children, home, work. (The Roper Starch polling firm has asked American women every few years since 1974 about their preferences for marriage, children, and career. The poll conducted in 1995 shows that the majority of women -- 55 percent -- hope to combine all three, and a further 26 percent want marriage and children but not a career.) The women who don't desire these things -- those who like living alone or who find perfectly fulfilling the companionship of their friends and cats or whose work eclipses their need for family -- may be sincerely happy, but they should not be confused with the average woman.
Unfortunately, that confusion is now the prevailing wisdom, one that has been advocated -- and continues to be advocated -- by the most vocal and influential women's groups. For nearly thirty years, the public policies and individual ways of life that feminists have encouraged, and the laws they have pushed through, have been based on their adamant belief that women want more than equality with men or options outside their families; they want full independence from husbands and family. This is why the "solutions" we hear proposed by these feminists so dramatically fail to appeal to the majority of women. Abortion on demand and condoms in the classroom have failed to prevent millions of unmarried teenagers from becoming mothers before they're old enough to vote. Affirmative action may have propelled some women through the executive ranks, but it has done little for the vast numbers of women who build their work around their family obligations. "No-fault divorce" and other sex-blind laws have perversely punished women, whose special circumstances no longer receive special consideration. Generous welfare benefits to single mothers and shrill warnings about male violence have not dissuaded most women from wanting to share their lives with men. The most liberal family-leave policies cannot begin to address the day-to-day madness that drives so many working women into the ground, nor does "cheaper and better child care" seem any sort of answer to mothers who are already guilt-ridden and concerned about leaving their babies every morning.
It is at this intimate level that feminism has failed women, and maybe no group of women more completely than those who became the very models of feminist achievement. The women who now leave their families every morning to board commuter trains -- the women who have traded in their housecoats for business suits, vacuums for computers, carpeted and upholstered living rooms for carpeted and upholstered offices, demanding, tantrum-throwing children for demanding, tantrum-throwing colleagues -- may well wonder if they haven't simply traded in one form of unhappiness for another. After all, it should strike us as strange, given the freedom we now enjoy, that happiness should continue to be so elusive. Yet to achieve the very reasonable list of "essentials" that I mentioned previously, all in some sort of balance, seems, for millions of women, as probable as stumbling across the Holy Grail.
This isn't to say there are no solutions to the new problems. To find them, however, will require a new way of thinking about modern women's lives. To do that we must begin by accepting that our problems originate not in our oppression but, as the writer Midge Decter has wisely observed, in our new freedom. And that new freedom is a great accomplishment. Yet if we are to enjoy it, and not be defeated by it, we must learn to think in ways quite unlike the ways that feminism has taught us to think. We must reconsider some of the assumptions that have brought us to our current impasse. This does not mean nostalgically wishing to "go back" -- as if that were even possible but it certainly does mean looking back, honestly, at what we may have lost in pursuit of the freedom we have won, and asking ourselves whether there is any way to recapture what was good in the old ways we cast aside.
For in all the ripping down of barriers that has taken place over a generation, we may have inadvertently also smashed the foundations necessary for our happiness. Pretending that we are the same as men -- with similar needs and desires -- has only led many of us to find out, brutally, how different we really are. In demanding radical independence -- from men, from our families -- we may have also abandoned certain bargains and institutions that didn't always work perfectly but until very recently were civilization's best ways of taming the reckless human heart.
There are a great many women unhappy because they acted upon the wisdom passed along to them by the people they most trusted. These women thought they did everything right -- only to have it turn out all wrong. That the wisdom they received was faulty, that it was based on false assumptions, is a hard lesson for anyone to learn. But it is a lesson every woman growing up today will have to learn -- as I, and thousands upon thousands of women of my generation, had to learn, often painfully. In this book I can't offer women, as I couldn't the magazine editors, any simple ten-point plan for making our lives easier. But I can sketch out what the new problems are and pinpoint some of the wrong assumptions that created them. So many of us are in the habit of approaching our problems as those arising from inequality and sexism that we cannot imagine any other way to think about them. But we must, urgently, begin to do so. For if we are ever to resolve these problems and take advantage of our new freedoms, we are going to have to look them squarely in the face, unhampered by ideology, and not shy away from what we see.
Our grandmothers, we are told, took husbands the way we might choose our first apartment. There was a scheduled viewing, a quick turn about the interior, a glance inside the closets, a nervous intake of breath as one read the terms of the lease, and then the signing -- or not. You either felt a man's charms right away or you didn't. If you didn't, you entertained a few more prospects until you found one who better suited you. If you loved him, really loved him, all the better. But you also expected to make compromises: The view may not be great, but it's sunny and spacious (translation: he's not that handsome, but he's sweet-natured and will be a good provider). Whether you accepted or rejected him, however, you didn't dawdle. My late mother-in-law, who married at twenty, told me that in her college circles in the mid-1950s, a man who took a woman out for more than three dates without intending marriage was considered a cad. Today, the man who considered marriage so rashly would be thought a fool. Likewise, a woman.
"If "a young woman decides to get married, say before she is twenty-five -- she risks being regarded by her friends as a tragic figure, spoken of the way wartime generations once mourned the young men killed in battle: 'How unfortunate, with all that promise, to be cut down so early in life!'"
Instead, like lords and sailors of yore, a young woman is encouraged to embark upon the world, seek her fortune and sow her oats, and only much later -- closer to thirty than twenty -- consider the possibility of settling down. Even religious conservatives, who disapprove of sex outside of marriage, accept the now-common wisdom that it is better to put off marriage than do it too early. The popular radio host Laura Schlessinger, traditional in so many of her views, constantly tells her listeners not to consider going to the altar before thirty. In 1965, nearly 90 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine were married; by 1996, only 56 percent of women in this age group were, according to the Population Reference Bureau in its 1996 survey, "The United States at Mid-Decade." Indeed, the more educated and ambitious a woman is the more likely she is to delay marriage and children, the Census Bureau reports. And if she doesn't -- if such a young woman decides to get married, say before she is twenty-five -- she risks being regarded by her friends as a tragic figure, spoken of the way wartime generations once mourned the young men killed in battle: "How unfortunate, with all that promise, to be cut down so early in life!"
I remember congratulating a young woman upon her recent marriage to a friend of mine and commenting perfunctorily that both of them must be very happy. She was twenty-four at the time. She grabbed my hand, held it, and said with emotion, "Thank you!" As it turned out, I'd been the only woman to offer her congratulations without immediately expressing worry that she'd done the wrong thing. Her single female friends had greeted her wedding announcement as a kind of betrayal. A few had managed to stammer some grudging best wishes. Her best friend nearly refused to be a bridesmaid. They simply couldn't fathom why she'd tossed away her freedom when she was barely out of college. And she, in turn, couldn't convince them that she really had met the man she wanted to marry, that she didn't want to keep going out to bars in the evenings and clubs on the weekends, postponing her marriage for half a decade until she reached an age that her friends would consider more suitable.
In this sense, we lead lives that are exactly the inverse of our grandmothers'. If previous generations of women were raised to believe that they could only realize themselves within the roles of wife and mother, now the opposite is thought true: It's only outside these roles that we are able to realize our full potential and worth as human beings. A twenty-year-old bride is considered as pitiable as a thirty-year-old spinster used to be. Once a husband and children were thought to be essential to a woman's identity, the sources of purpose in her life; today, they are seen as peripherals, accessories that we attach only after our full identities are up and running. And how are we supposed to create these identities? They are to be forged by ourselves, through experience and work and "trial" relationships. The more experience we have, the more we accomplish independently, the stronger we expect our character to grow. Not until we've reached full maturity -- toward the close of our third decade of life -- is it considered safe for a woman to take on the added responsibilities of marriage and family without having to pay the price her grandmother did for domestic security, by surrendering her dreams to soap powders, screaming infants, and frying pans.
The modern approach to romance was perfectly captured in an item I came across one week in the wedding announcements of The New York Times. It was a short, lively description of a ceremony that had taken place between a twenty-eight-year-old graphic designer and a thirty-two-year-old groom. "I'm fiercely independent," the bride told the Times reporter. "My mother always told me, 'You don't need a man in your life. If you believe you need a man, you won't pursue your own goals.'" And pursuing her own goals is what the woman had done in the five years since meeting her future husband at a party in Portland, Oregon, where both had grown up. The bride, who looked like "a sturdier version of Audrey Hepburn," according to the Times, "slim enough to wear cigarette pants, but [also] as if she could change a tire or chop wood," dated but finally broke up with the man in order to move to Manhattan by herself. She said, "I never stopped loving [him], but we were doing our own separate things. Sometimes I think you have to do that in a relationship. It's easy to get complacent and not put yourself first." The man, who couldn't stop thinking about the woman, quit his job and followed her to New York a year later. Eventually they were engaged. As the Times noted, "While some couples see their wedding as the moment when everything from their bank accounts to their taste in food must merge," the bride would have none of it. "I think our independence has made us closer, because we both bring something to the relationship," she said. "D. H. Lawrence writes about two people in a relationship being like two stars who rotate around each other, attracted by each other's energy, but not dependent on each other." Their wedding took place, appropriately enough, on July Fourth.
But there is a price to be paid for postponing commitment, too, one this wedding announcement hints at. It is a price that is rarely stated honestly, not the least because the women who are paying it don't realize how onerous it will be until it's too late. The bride (whose photograph does show her to be nearly as pretty as a young Audrey Hepburn) embodies the virtues of a modern-day heroine: She is evidently free-spirited, self-confident, and determined to live, as Virginia Woolf exhorted, "an invigorating life" unimpeded by men. But she is lucky, too. For in order for this bride to realize her independence, she must remain so constantly self-centered that even when deeply in love, she cannot risk, as she puts it, becoming "complacent" and forgetting to put herself first. What if she hadn't found a suitor so willing to accommodate her quest? The groom isn't quoted in the article but is described by his friends as being "remarkably sweet-tempered." He would have to be! While he demonstrated that he was willing to quit his job and move to a new city just for the chance of being with her, she announced -- to The New York Times, no less -- that she wasn't prepared to make any such sacrifice on his behalf.
Of course, her attitude doesn't have to be read this way. And it usually isn't. How often have you watched a TV show or seen a movie or read a novel in which a woman is celebrated for finding the courage "to be herself" by leaving a marriage or starting a new career or telling a boorish husband he'll have to make his own dinner from now on? Her actions are not seen as selfish -- or when they are, her selfishness is seen as payback for all the centuries of women's selflessness and sacrifice to men. Almost anything she does in the name of her own salvation and independence is justifiable.
This rebellious model of womanhood, or the Selfish Heroine, as she might be called, began appearing in first-person magazine stories in the early 1970s and has been upheld by a generation of feminist writers and thinkers since. Virtually hundreds of novels and television movies-of-the-week have recycled the same plot. The story usually begins with an ending -- the ending of a marriage. We meet a woman who is thwarted and depressed in her life as mother and wife. We then follow this woman's gradual enlightenment -- her "journey of self-discovery" -- as she comes to realize that true happiness lies in learning to value and love herself. She will begin putting her own needs first, until her old self is shed, and she blossoms into an entrepreneur or a congresswoman or maybe (if it's TV) a private detective. Newly confident, she'll trade in her insensitive, staid husband for an artistic and sensitive lover -- a college professor or, possibly, a sculptor. Or she'll simply strike out on her own -- with her kids or without them -- to live a fuller, richer, and autonomous life peacefully by the seaside or in a funky downtown loft, surrounded by her own possessions. The modern fairy tale ending is the reverse of the traditional one: A woman does not wait for Prince Charming to bring her happiness; she lives happily ever after only by refusing to wait for him -- or by actually rejecting him. It is those who persist in hoping for a Prince Charming who are setting themselves up for disillusionment and unhappiness.
t is a novel in which the narrator grabs us by the arm and hauls us up and down the block, to one home after another, and demands that we see for ourselves the ways in which, over and over, suburban housewives of the fifties and sixties came to live out a half-life," writes Susan Faludi in an afterword to a reissued edition of The Women's Room, Marilyn French's best-selling 1977 novel. "I had hoped for signs of outmodedness, but the same damn problems French identifies are still with us...." You don't have to subscribe to Faludi's or French's hard-core feminist ideas to have absorbed their certainty that domesticity remains a threat to women's happiness. The idea that dependency is dangerous for women, that if we don't watch out for ourselves we risk being subsumed by men and family, that lasting happiness cannot be found in love or marriage -- these are sentiments that are not considered at all radical and with which many more moderate women would agree. And while it's impossible to chart these things, I suspect it's this fear of dependency -- more even than fear of divorce -- that is primarily responsible for young women's tendency to delay marriage and childbirth.
Well, why not? Why should we tie ourselves down too young or believe that our only hope for happiness rests in finding lasting love? As we read in The New York Times of the groom who makes all the accommodations to the woman's plans, we may think, Bravo for her. Bravo for staying true to herself. This is progress. I remember having, in my early twenties, long and passionate conversations with my female friends about our need to be strong, to stand alone, to retain our independence and never compromise our souls by succumbing to domesticity. And yet at the same time, we constantly felt the need to shore each other up. We'd come across passages in books -- paeans to the autonomy of the individual, replete with metaphors of lighthouses, mountains, the sea, etc. -- copy them out carefully (in purple ink, on arty cards), and mail them to each other. It was as if despite our passion for independence, despite our confidence in ourselves as independent women, we somehow feared that even a gentle gust of wind blowing from the opposite direction would send us spiraling back into the 1950s, a decade none of us had experienced firsthand but one that could induce shudders all the same. Our skittishness is all the more surprising given that most of my friends' mothers, as well as my own, worked at interesting jobs and had absorbed as deeply as we had the cultural messages of the time. When I look back upon it, I think our youthful yearning to fall in love must have been enormously strong and at war with our equally fierce determination to stay free. We were fighting as much a battle against ourselves as against the snares of domesticity. And if one of us were to give way, the rest would feel weakened in our own inner struggles, betrayed by our friend's abandonment of the supposedly happy autonomous life. For the truth is, once you have ceased being single, you suddenly discover that all that energy you spent propelling yourself toward an independent existence was only going to be useful if you were planning to spend the rest of your life as a nun or a philosopher on a mountaintop or maybe a Hollywood-style adventuress, who winds up staring into her empty bourbon glass forty years later wondering if it was all damn worth it. In preparation for a life spent with someone else, however, it was not going to be helpful.
Copyright c 1999 Danielle Crittenden. All rights reserved.