(CNN) -- According to Danielle Crittenden, something is awry in the lives of American women. They are encouraged to embark upon the world seeking fortune and sowing oats, and have achieved goals previous generations of women could only dream of. Yet in the midst of plenty, she says, women today feel more unhappiness, more confusion and more insecurity.
What has gone wrong? What can be done to set it right?
In her book "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman", Crittenden, the founder and editor of "The Women's Quarterly" magazine, argues that a generation of women has been misled, taught to blame men and pursue independence at all costs. According to Crittenden, happiness is obtainable only if women free their minds from outdated feminist slogans and habits of behavior.
"There are a great many women unhappy because they acted upon the wisdom passed along to them by the people they most trusted," She writes. "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."
Not long ago I found myself sitting at a restaurant table with the editors of a glossy women's magazine. They were three ladies in their early to mid-forties wearing power suits and slightly scuffed pumps. They'd brought along blank notepads and slender pencils and were waiting, flatteringly, to jot down my thoughts on the state of modern womanhood.
Their interest had been piqued by a story I'd written for The Wall Street Journal about magazines like theirs. Women today enjoy unprecedented freedom and opportunity. So why, I'd wondered, were the articles in women's magazines so relentlessly pessimistic? I'd pulled thirty years' worth of back issues of Mademoiselle, Glamour, Vogue, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and McCall's from the stacks of the Library of Congress. It was partly from reading magazines like these that Betty Friedan had concluded in 1963 that the women of her generation felt unhappy and stifled. A huge social transformation had taken place between Friedan's day and mine. Had it made women any happier? If the truth about women can be found in the magazines they buy, then the answer was, resoundingly, no. In fact, these magazines portrayed my contemporaries as even more miserable and insecure, more thwarted and obsessed with men, than the most depressed, Lithium-popping, suburban reader of the 1950s.
This wasn't altogether surprising. The longings and passions of human beings don't change much from generation to generation. Women's preoccupation with love and their looks is part of the eternal female condition that no political movement could ever change. But what was surprising was the sudden and dramatic change of mood of these magazines. It's a stark descent from the ebullience and optimism of the dawning of the modern women's movement in the early 1970s to the disappointment and bitterness you see in these publications today. In 1973 -- the year of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision and the Senate's vote to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution -- once-demure publications like McCall's and Mademoiselle were ripping off their pearl necklaces to don the neck scarves of revolutionaries. Men, the magazines trumpeted, would soon be rendered irrelevant. Male reproductive functions would be replaced by artificial insemination. Husbands and lovers would no longer be needed for economic support or companionship (female friends were better, it was agreed) or even sexual pleasure (Mademoiselle went so far as to equate dating and marriage with prostitution; in another article it asked, "Is Everybody Basically Bisexual?"). These radical notions were conveyed in the magazines' customary playful manner ("How to Liberate Your Entire Family!"), making them seem deliciously fun, a lark, like indulging in a pair of the season's impractical platform shoes. And they were artfully sandwiched between photo spreads showing gorgeous ways to decorate your new (very own!) apartment, profiles of women who had shunned marriage and motherhood for dazzling careers, and tips for leading a sizzling and adventurous sex life (because men, when they were not being discarded, were to be used as casually as they had once used you).
"In some instances, the very same editors who had urged their readers to walk away from men twenty years ago are now, like crazed commodities traders caught short in a bull market, urging women to snatch them back up at almost any price."
As I worked my way through this pile of blindingly colorful magazines in the dignified atmosphere of the library's reading room, I was reminded of the day I discovered an orange suede micro-miniskirt hanging in the back of my mother's closet. "How could you have worn this?" I asked her, holding it against my waist. She shrugged: "It was the sixties." The women's magazines of the 1990s likewise shrugged off their old enthusiasms. Having your own apartment has ceased to be novel and nowadays it's unlikely that you're going to invite a man you've just met home for sex -- that is, assuming you are able to meet a man at all. For if there is one attitude that unites the women's magazines of today, it is their pessimism about their readers' love lives. Editors -- particularly those of publications aimed at women in their twenties -- now seem to take for granted a readership that is whiling away a lot of solitary evenings at the gym.
When the magazines are not terrifying women into celibacy with articles on the dangers of "date rape" and sexually transmitted diseases, they are offering desperate "tips" to catch a man's attention ("Spill a drink on him!" suggested Cosmo). And once you have managed to turn a man's head, it's assumed that you will have no end of trouble keeping it pivoted in your direction ("Will He Cheat?" asked Glamour. "What Are Your Chances of Staying Married?" And so on). If these women's magazines are any indicator, rather than losing all their value in women's eyes -- as the liberationists had predicted -- men have instead seen their stock skyrocket and split two or three times. In some instances, the very same editors who had urged their readers to walk away from men twenty years ago are now, like crazed commodities traders caught short in a bull market, urging women to snatch them back up at almost any price. In an issue of Cosmo from 1989, I came across an alarming, if unscientific, report on the nation's "man shortage." For the romantically desperate, there was a map showing the cities where the male population outnumbered the female; Cosmo also helpfully included job prospects, cost-of-living indexes, and profiles of the local economies. A lonely woman was urged to pack up and move to Ames, Iowa, or Gainesville, Florida, the two most promising places. "Much of the archery equipment used in the U.S. is made in Gainesville -- increasing chances you'll be hit by one of Cupid's arrows!"
And to snuff out the last flickering source of consolation, editors no longer promise that romantic disappointments can be assuaged by career satisfaction. By the late 1970s, the magazines had ceased to regard the workplace as an exciting unexplored frontier. They now describe the office as just another source of frustration and boredom -- that is, when it's not a venue for sexual harassment, or the cause of the exhaustion and distress of working mothers.
This was what the editors who had invited me to lunch wanted to know. As their pencils hovered and our plates arrived, I was nervously aware that my opinion on the subject was not exactly the stuff of upbeat headlines ("Ten Reasons Why the Modern Woman Is Unhappy and What to Do About It!"). Indeed, as I began to explain how I thought the unhappiness expressed in the magazines' pages was the inevitable outcome of certain feminist beliefs, I saw disappointment cross the editors' faces. They discreetly put down their pencils and sipped their mineral water. When at last they responded, it became clear that what they hoped I'd offer them was not a criticism of feminism but rather a positive indication of where the women's movement should, as they put it, "go next." It was true, the editors agreed, that some feminists lately had gone "too far," and polls suggested the majority of women curled away from the word feminist as if it were a rotting substance found at the back of the fridge. But that didn't mean, the editors insisted, that we should abandon feminism entirely. We just needed to polish up its image find "the new Gloria Steinem," who could market some improved brand of feminism, one that might appeal to the millions of young women who seemed uninterested in the whole subject.
In some ways, the editors' unwavering belief in the power of feminism was inspiring. Feminism was their faith. It was as feminists that they had come of age; it was feminism that had defined their identities as women. Its failures and disappointments were no reason to give it up; to the contrary, they were the reason to press forward more keenly than ever. As they listened to me, first with bafflement, then with irritation, and finally with anger, I thought of an apparatchik I'd met in Slovakia shortly after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. He was still occupying an office in a government building in central Bratislava. He had not been fired because he wasn't perceived as one of the "bad" Communists: In his years of work for the municipal bureaucracy, he'd sent no one to prison, and had even modernized the city's plumbing. He was bewildered by the popular rejection of an ideology he'd spent his entire life implementing and still fervently believed in. How would the masses live without it? he fretted. What would protect them from unbridled capitalism and American cultural imperialism? So too these magazine editors could not imagine a society in which feminism did not reign over the minds of women, or at the very least over those who hold political and judicial power. Without feminism, they feared, we were in danger of "going back" -- back to what, exactly, was never spelled out because to them it was self-evidently terrible. Domestic servitude? Beehive hairdos? Might we even lose the vote?
It's common now for the elders of the women's movement to express disappointment in my generation of women -- the "daughters of the revolution" now in their twenties and thirties -- who came of age long after the last feminist brassiere had been burned. As they see it, we are enjoying the spoils of their victories without any gratitude for their struggle. We get up in the morning and go to our jobs as doctors, executives, plumbers, soldiers without devoting a second's thought to the efforts that were spent making these jobs seem completely normal. We deposit our paychecks without having to worry whether we are getting paid less for the job we're doing because of our sex. We enroll in science courses with every expectation of being taken seriously as scientists; we apply for postgraduate degrees with every expectation that we will use them and not let them languish when we become mothers. When we graduate, our first thought is not, Whom will I marry? but, What will I do? And when we do marry, we take for granted that our husbands will treat us as equals, with dreams and ambitions like theirs, and not as creatures uniquely destined to push a vacuum or change a diaper. If Virginia Woolf, in the early part of this century, modestly hoped that women would attain "rooms of our own," we have, at century's end, not only achieved rooms of our own but apartments of our own, offices of our own, bank accounts of our own, judicial seats of our own, constituencies of our own, and even corporate empires of our own.
In that sense we are enjoying the spoils of our elders' struggles. But if we seem ungrateful, or indifferent, it is not because we don't believe in the ideas that were bequeathed to us. Just a few months before my lunch with the magazine editors, I'd spent some time driving around colleges in the Northeast -- small elite schools like Smith and Yale and larger state schools like the University of Massachusetts -- talking to female students for another article I was writing. I was curious to know what (if anything) feminism meant to women who had grown up in a world long altered by the activism of their mothers. While it was true that most of the students I spoke to -- women who said they were going to be doctors and lawyers, professors and bankers -- declined to describe themselves as "feminist" ("I'm not sure what that word means anymore" was the usual explanation given), every opinion they expressed would have warmed the heart of the most fiery "libber" a quarter century ago. A twenty-year-old Ivy League student said that she was planning to have children outside of marriage because she feared a husband might "threaten her individuality." Another told me that she had stopped dating a man she loved because neither one of them was willing to make concessions to the other's career plans.
With few exceptions, the students expressed quite casual attitudes about sex. They spoke of their affairs with detachment and became passionate only when discussing their ex-lovers' reluctance to do the dishes. Virtually every young woman I interviewed put her job aspirations ahead of any hopes for marriage or children (even if she claimed to want those things eventually). Each one of them worried that too serious an attachment to a man or, worse, to children might compromise her sense of who she was.
Few of these students had read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique or other feminist classics. Only a handful had joined the campus women's groups. It didn't matter. Their generation had provided the laboratory mice for the social experiments of the past twenty-five years. They had grown up with working mothers, day care, and no-fault divorce. Their primary school textbooks were illustrated with little girls flying planes and little boys mopping the floors. They took coed classes in shop and metalworking instead of home economics. They'd participated in frank discussions about birth control and sexuality with their grade-school teachers. Their developing intellects had been bombarded by feminist cultural messages: the proudly menstruating heroines of Judy Blume novels, the supportive articles about single mothers in the lifestyle sections of newspapers, the applause on daytime talk shows for women who divorce their husbands in order to "realize themselves." The students I interviewed had neither adopted nor rejected feminism. Rather, it had seeped into their minds like intravenous saline into the arm of an unconscious patient. They were feminists without knowing it.
Indeed, when I sought out those who did consciously and proudly call themselves feminists, I usually found myself on the fringes of student society, among women with odd personalities and carefully cultivated grievances: lesbians who had moved out of the dormitories to form separatist communes; women's studies majors who, like the Marxists of the 1930s, had undergone an almost religious conversion and now spoke about even the weather in stark, ideological terms; activists who would protest anything from the cruelty of chicken farming to the patriarchal tyranny of English grammar and punctuation. I remember arriving to interview the head of one university's women's center -- the feminist gathering places that are now as common on college campuses as sports arenas -- only to find a young woman dressed from head to toe in black, lying in the middle of the floor surrounded by half-finished signs for an upcoming demonstration. Her hair was dyed bright green and styled as if by electric shock. As she sleepily came to (she was hung over, it turned out), she described herself as being "a socialist feminist, I guess, but really I'm all over the place -- Marxist, radical -- but not anywhere near liberal feminism" (a phrase she pronounced with contempt). Women who did not see the conspiracy mounted against them by "the patriarchy" she said wearily, were just "so f -- ing passive."
It is because women like these call themselves feminists that so many others have decided that feminism has gone "too far." But in their own way, these extremists also embody feminism's success. Ideas that once seemed radical -- whether it was equal pay for equal work, or rebelling against housework and marriage, or storming boardrooms and military academies -- have been so completely absorbed by our society and accepted by its institutions all the way up to the Supreme Court that the only way left to be truly radical is to become a nut.
Still, leaders of the women's movement will frequently say that the success women have achieved is not enough. They warn us that the same forces that brought about our oppression could rise again or are on the rise again. Thus, in 1996, the fantastically successful female editor of The New Yorker could put together a special issue on women that, in one gulp, left the reader with the impression that to be a modern woman is to live in constant danger of rape, wrongful imprisonment, "patriarchal atrocity," lascivious bosses, right-wing zealotry, and murder on the job. Thus the new feminists like Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf can argue, to a largely credulous press, that women are being brainwashed back into the 1950s by a male-dominated media and its female stooges or that women diet and wear eye shadow because they unthinkingly accept the impossible beauty standards of the (again) male-dominated advertising industry. Thus feminist organizations can float unsubstantiated whoppers like "wife battery escalates on Super Bowl Sunday" and not one reporter pauses to question the statistic before it has been broadcast across the country. Thus the legal definition of sexual harassment can be stretched to include a bungled pass or an undesired compliment.
And this is what those women's magazines I waded through that day in the library so vividly reflected. Their readers, no matter how depressed or thwarted the articles indicated they felt, are not depressed or thwarted in the same way their mothers were. The women who buy these magazines today have heeded their mothers' advice: Do something with your life; don't depend upon a man to take care of you; don't make the same mistakes I did. So they have made different mistakes. They are the women who postponed marriage and childbirth to pursue their careers only to find themselves at thirty-five still single and baby-crazy, with no husband in sight. They are the unwed mothers who now depend upon the state to provide what the fathers of their children won't -- a place to live and an income to support their kids. They are the eighteen-year-old girls who believed they could lead the unfettered sexual lives of men, only to end up in an abortion clinic or attending grade twelve English while eight months' pregnant. They are the new brides who understand that when a couple promises to stay together forever, they have little better than a fifty-fifty chance of sticking to it. They are the female partners at law firms who thought they'd made provisions for everything about their career -- except for that sudden, unexpected moment when they find their insides shredding the first day they return from maternity leave, having placed their infants in a stranger's arms. They are the young mothers who quit their jobs to be with their babies and who now feel anxiety and even a mild sense of embarrassment about what they have chosen to do -- who look over their fences at the quiet backyards of two-career couples, wondering if they haven't done a foolish thing, and feeling a kind of isolation their mothers never knew. Above all, these women are the majority of us, women who are hoping to do everything -- work, children, marriage -- only to ask ourselves why the pieces haven't added up the way we'd like or why we are collapsing under the strain of it all and doing everything so badly.
The urgent and compelling questions that haunt us from moment to moment are ones to which the women's movement offers no answers -- or, when it does, answers that are unhelpful. Is work really more important and fulfilling than raising my children? Why does my boyfriend not want to get married as much as I do? Why is the balance between being a good mother and working so elusive? Why could my mother afford to stay home with her children while I cannot? By giving up my job, am I giving up my identity? Should men and women be trying to lead identical kinds of lives, or were there good reasons for the old divisions of labor between mother and father, husband and wife? If so, do these divisions make us "unequal"?
In a way, the situation women wake up in today is more dire than the one of thirty years ago, when Friedan first sat down to write about the gnawing "problem with no name." For unlike the problem about which Friedan spoke -- which afflicted educated suburban wives trapped and unfulfilled in their well-upholstered ranch homes -- this new problem with no name affects the female executive high atop the city in her glass office as much as the single mother struggling to lift a stroller onto a bus thirty storeys below. Despite sweeping government programs, tens of billions of dollars in social spending, and massive social upheaval in the name of sexual equality, you only have to glance through a newspaper or switch on the news to be subject to a litany of gloomy statistics about today's women: We are more likely to be divorced or never married at all than women of previous generations. We are more likely to bear children out of wedlock. We are more likely to be junkies or drunks or to die in poverty. We are more likely to have an abortion or to catch a sexually transmitted disease. If we are mothers, even of infants and very small children, we are more likely to work at full-time jobs and still shoulder the bulk of housework as well.
These troubling indicators of female distress are debated at election time and elaborately discussed in the press. But all too often they are treated as a hundred distinct issues. Yet just as Friedan recognized that the million individual breakdowns and lithium addictions taking place in American suburbs indicated a more general problem among women, so must this modern problem with no name be recognized. In Friedan's time, the problem was that too many people failed to see that while women were women, they were also human, and they were being denied the ability to express and fulfill their human potential outside the home. The modern problem with no name is, I believe, exactly the reverse of the old one: While we now recognize that women are human, we blind ourselves to the fact that we are also women. If we feel stunted and oppressed when denied the chance to realize our human potential, we suffer every bit as much when cut off from those aspects of life that are distinctly and uniquely female.
Copyright c 1999 Danielle Crittenden. All rights reserved.