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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002
Ever since Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique blasted away the suburban myth of dishwasher bliss with an emancipation proclamation for America's bored housewives, women have tended to be defined in bestseller parlance. Publishers rush to put out the next, new explication of women's lives and what is wrong with them -- as if the vastly different ambitions and desires of each American woman can be lumped together, summarized and analyzed between two screaming covers.
Friedan's opus helped spawn a social movement that broke down a highly formalized structure of gender roles. Today, women's lives are all about personal choices, and the social critics sound more like whiners than revolutionaries.
In the 1980s we were victims of a Backlash, according to author Susan Faludi. She thought the family values crowd was successfully undermining women's progress by pinning working women with the blame for single parenthood, juvenile crime and a venal pop culture. Women's liberation gains were being turned back, according to Faludi, by an industry of guilt.
Then, in 1991, we were told that women were evaluated by society in only one way: how we look. Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth explained how women's happiness was sabotaged by the diet, fashion and cosmetic surgery industry, which convinced women to be dissatisfied with their bodies. Women in Wolf's world were victims of clever male-driven marketing, suckered into believing their self-worth wasn't measured by success in raising responsible children or career advancement but in their waist-to-hip ratio. This idea was reinforced in Reviving Ophelia, in which author and clinical psychologist Mary Pipher said our looks-obsessed, MTV-inspired demands on adolescent girls was a form of "girl poisoning."
The age of post-Friedan feminism was populated by commentators who cast women as anchorless victims of a culture driven by base male values. While there were almost no existing legal roadblocks to women's equality left, women were nonetheless being manipulated back into the roles of domestic caretaker and sex kitten because that is what the male power structure wanted.
It was as if no one was paying attention to the remarkable progress women were making in every realm of life formerly occupied exclusively by men: from women astronauts, chief executive officers and entrepreneurs to the explosion in women's sports. Sure, women started caring more about how they looked, but so did men. Looking good and living healthier were becoming part of a satisfying life societywide. And as to adolescent angst, when has puberty ever been a time of unbridled self-confidence for girls, or boys for that matter? Remember Charles Atlas?
Not to be left out of the conversation, neo-traditionalists elbowed onto the platform in the late 1990s. They didn't bemoan the way women were ostensibly being cajoled back into hearth and home; they encouraged it as the only way for women to be truly happy.
In 1998 Danielle Crittenden wrote the cloying What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, based on the thesis that women who postpone marriage and motherhood are fighting against their natural biology, sharply reducing their chances of attracting a mate and dooming themselves to career-laden misery. Wendy Shalit, at the tender age of 23, made the case for the virgin bride in A Return to Modesty. The book was essentially a retread of the old chestnut: "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" Shalit pointed approvingly to the way women are treated in Islamic and Orthodox Jewish cultures in which rules against the mingling of the sexes before marriage is strictly enforced.
Funny, when I look at a burka-clad woman, the beneficial protection of her virtue isn't the first thing that springs to mind. Strictly defined sex roles and sexual mores aren't pedestals; they are cages. Some women may love the relative safety of such confinements, but the most interesting and fulfilled women I know are glad to be rid of them. And Crittenden's suggestion that women get married early and start reproducing as a sure-fire recipe for happiness later in life is undercut by statistics showing that the median age of marriage for women is still a youthful mid-20s, yet the average age of divorce for women is about 33 -- fleeting happiness and security to say the least.
Now comes Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose new book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, says career-oriented women are waiting too long to have the biological children they desperately want. Nearly half of all women in high-paid careers don't have children by the time they're 40, according to Hewlett. After that, a woman's fertility tanks, leaving many careerists devastated.
On the other hand, statistics show that most women who have chosen motherhood long for a return to the workplace.
Hey, choices come with downsides. Choosing priorities is risky business, but it is also a precious gift. Our age has seen the end of most legal, professional, reproductive and cultural restraints on women -- freedoms known by no other female population in history. I don't care what the books say. This is a great time and place to be sporting two X chromosomes.