Women's work

Rona Jaffe's novel The Best of Everything, about working women in 1950's New York City, set the scene for the career-obsessed characters in Candace Bushnell's new Lipstick Jungle.

Published October 27, 2005

When Rona Jaffe first published The Best of Everything in 1958, feminists were a rarity. Betty Friedan had yet to write The Feminine Mystique, exploding the myth of the Happy Housewife. Gloria was not yet known as Ms. Steinem. And Shirley Chisholm, who would become the first African-American elected to Congress, was working in a day care center.

So it's not surprising that the 20-somethings populating Jaffe's '50s novel are either engaged or looking to get engaged. Why wouldn't these working girls - they were still called girls then - be more interested in proposals than promotions? In the '50s, marriage was the obvious way to success for women - at least financial success.

Working at a downtown Manhattan publishing house, they commute by train from upscale suburbs; by subway from close-in, working-class suburbs; or from three-story walk-up apartments in the city. They eat at the Automat and save as much of their $50-a-week salary as they can. But for most of them, work is just a way station. Even the 40-something Miss Farrow, rumored to be having an affair with one of the married bosses, leaves when she finally snags an unfettered man.

In Lipstick Jungle, Candace Bushnell also focuses on a trio of working women in New York. Like Jaffe's characters, these women are struggling, but not to make ends meet. More comfortable than the men-seeking quartet of Bushnell's other wildly successful novel about women in Manhattan, Sex in the City - and far more ambitious - these three women (we would never call them girls now) are fighting to take over the world, or at least corner offices.

Nico O'Neilly, the editor-in-chief of Bonfire magazine, is shouldering her boss aside to cap the top spot of a $3-billion magazine empire. Wendy Healy, a movie mogul, is flying off to Romania to assure her latest film will be Oscar-worthy. Victory Ford, a fashion designer, is poised to merge her line with a $25-million French company. Meeting over lunch at Michael's, the "high-priced canteen for the city's movers and shakers," they never call themselves feminists, but they have a lot in common with their take-charge sisters. They are very interested in promotion. Self-promotion.

Comparing The Best of Everything and Lipstick Jungle, written nearly 50 years apart, is like fast-forwarding through the progress - and setbacks - women have faced in the intervening years.

The most obvious change is who controls money. In Jaffe's novel, the men have it and wield it over their wives and girlfriends. In Bushnell's tale, the female characters hold the strings of some very high-priced purses.

Nico lives in a $5-million, five-story townhouse with an elevator and a garden. Her husband, Seymour, doesn't have to work and her 12-year-old daughter, Katrina, goes to private school. She thinks nothing of spending $1,000 of company money to buy a first edition copy of The Art of War to impress a client and dresses in designer clothes (usually by her friend Victory Ford) and golden-reddish mink jackets that match her hair color.

Wendy lives in a loft with her husband, Shane, whom she has been supporting "almost from the day they'd met 15 years ago." She lives in 2-year-old black Armani separates while Shane spends her money on hair transplants and other metrosexual concerns. Overseeing the household and the care of the children, he has the help of an English nanny, who gets a handsome $150,000 salary. Her accent "cost an extra $50,000," Wendy jokes.

Victory is dating a billionaire.

At first look, these women don't seem to have much in common with their '50s counterparts. Back then, says Jaffe, "people didn't talk about not being a virgin. They didn't talk about going out with married men. They didn't talk about abortion." They didn't even have a name for the blatant sexual harassment - bosses asking about their sex lives or looking up their skirts at a company party - that would never be tolerated today.

But, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that Bushnell's characters haven't really solved the nagging problem of inequality between men and women. They have merely flipped it on its head.

Living in a virtually sexless marriage, Nico is having an affair with a male model whom she treats - sound familiar? - like a sex object. Wendy is married to a man she doesn't respect, but whom she thinks she can manipulate with money. Constantly away for work, her children don't even know her. When she comes home to find Shane has walked out on her, her youngest, in the midst of a tantrum, punches her in the face. Victory, the most independent of the trio, can't live without male companionship: She returns to her billionaire again and again even though he is outrageously sexist.

"Everyone always said that women had choices, but it wasn't exactly true," Bushnell writes. "Women didn't really have the grab bag of options everyone said they did - an itchy reality Wendy began to understand in college. . . . She'd always insisted that she and Shane had a new, modern type of marriage - the marriage of the future! But in reality, it was nothing more than a reversal of a traditional marriage."

Wendy's messy divorce from Shane underscores that truth.

"Society punishes women in general," Wendy's lawyer tells her. "You could stay home and take care of your kids for twenty years, and then your kids go off to college and your husband leaves you for a younger woman and you have nothing." But Wendy's case, adds her lawyer, "is a perfect reversal of traditional sex roles: When a woman takes on the man's role, she can get screwed like a man. . . . If you go after full custody, they're going to go after full custody. And depending on which way the wind is blowing, there's a possibility they might win."

Not winning hadn't been in Wendy's playbook - or Nico's or Victory's either. But money and power carry their own complications. Most women in the '50s had neither, but they weren't exploiters either. Is treating a man like a sex object any more admirable than the reverse? Should a woman who crushes a colleague to climb to the top be respected because she has proved herself just as ruthless as a man?

Are we better off now than we were in the '50s? Not entirely. As Jaffe, who was 26 when she wrote The Best of Everything, puts it in the foreword to a reissue of her New York Times bestseller:

"Some things have stayed the same and some have come back. The Best of Everything is a sociological document but it's also about change: how your dreams change, how your life changes, how each thing that happens to you changes something else.

"And that doesn't change."


Candace Bushnell, author of Lipstick Jungle, appears at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the Campus Activities Center. She will sign books - but no Sex in the City TV memorabilia - at 1:15 in Authors Alley North. Rona Jaffe, author of The Best of Everything, appears at 4:15 in Davis Hall 130. She will sign books at 5 in Authors Alley South.

Bushnell, Jaffe and Jeanne Bice, author of Pull Yourself Up By Your Bra Straps, will take part in a panel discussion - "Women Today: Are We Better Off Than Our Mothers?" - at 2:15 p.m. Saturday in the Poynter Institute North Pavilion. They will sign books at 3:15 in Poynter Institute Room 105.