Illustrations by Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review
I don't believe in the end of men or that women can, or can't, have it all. There may be more single ladies than there used to be, but I'm not that interested in liberal whining about why 20-somethings can't find husbands, or conservative rants about how 30-somethings should settle for a "good enough" spouse. I do not think the vagina should have its own biography, although if it must, that book should be funny, sexy, and smart. Maybe someday.
Here is my New Year's resolution (which I have managed to keep so far): I am not going to read any books, magazine articles, or blogs about issues related to women this year. I'm calling a moratorium on works on women (WOW).
The most talked-about WOW of 2012 have all been dissected individually. But cumulatively, their disappointments exceed their individual shortcomings. Together they fail as both snapshots of the present and maps for the future. They bomb as economic cris de coeur and sexual SOSs, much less as romantic paeans to the extended single life. They neglect entire areas of experience and nuance. They resemble, most of all, windows streaked with rain. You can't see much through them, although you can hear the raindrops falling.
One thing these books and articles do is announce ends: Liza Mundy and Hanna Rosin focus on how women are doing so much better in every way (education, jobs) than men are that the latter are "ending." Naomi Wolf writes about how her quest for a better orgasm ended her dependence on old ways of thinking about sex. On a two-year stint at the State Department while on sabbatical from her job at Princeton, Anne-Marie Slaughter was shocked to discover that the government is less willing to accommodate female employees than the academy is. (She wants to end our reliance on second-wave feminism's myths about what women have won.) Kate Bolick zooms in on one dimension of Mundy and Rosin's ends—the end of marriage, which, God knows, has already ended several times before. (And forthcoming this spring is The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, by Donna Freitas.)
In contrast to Friedan's ambition and expansiveness, today's works on women are either too narcissistically self-helpy or too wonkishly impersonal.
This generation of WOW tries too hard to cram messy human lives into ending theories (of men, of marriage). That these are largely didactic pieces of writing—even when in the guise of journalism—might not be enough to make me stop reading. After all, WOW have a long history of polemics. Think of Germaine Greer, the late Shulamith Firestone, and, in our era, Caitlin Moran.
A more alienating problem is that the worlds these WOW describe seem to have come straight from Target. While the political realities and social conditions differ on the surface, at bottom they appear strangely similar—even Stepford-wifelike. The settings may vary, but only in the way that shades of bottle blonde do: a little elite college, a little Washington, a little Midwestern manufacturing town, a little Wall Street.
Even more predictable is the cast of characters. Here is a Wall Street warrior in the making, or a college co-ed. But where is the writer, artist, scholar of literature, private eye, or woman who has climbed the Himalayas? No one in these books seems to be doing anything that she loves, or has taken a risk for what she believes in. In fact, what you love and what you believe in are not even remotely relevant here. (Readers may pile on to say that my dislike of these scenes has something to do with my age—I'm a boomer—or that my need for love is some 1960s tic, but I don't think so, although I'm sure there are less curmudgeonly readers less bothered by these stories' mind-numbing sameness.)
What bothers me most about these writers is not that they aren't radical (that hardly enters the equation), but that their books and articles barely acknowledge the psychological complexities, the subterranean and contradictory forces pulling at women, as well as new possibilities offered.
A recent experience illustrates my sense of being a stranger in a strange land, at least one in which there's a party line I am not toeing. A few months ago, I was talking with a magazine editor about an article I wanted to write called "What Men Want." The idea was that I would write about men and women as people—individuals—not as villains and victims.
The piece would begin at a dinner I had attended several years earlier, which continues to haunt me. I was the only woman seated at a table full of male artists who had known one another for a long time. After a lot of wine had been drunk, the men—many of whom were close friends—began talking about a woman seated a few tables away.
I had met this woman not long before, but the men had known her for decades, and they narrated her life story by talking about her appearance. She was by then in her 60s, and she had (like all of us) endured many ups and downs. Years ago she was fat, one man mused, shaking his head, sadly glancing at his own paunch. Then she got thin, a second interrupted, and the company fondly recalled her babealiciousness during that phase. She divorced, a third explained, leaning over to pour himself more wine. Someone told a story about a drunken night, the woman, a writer, and a swimming pool. Several of the men were divorced, and they laughed at the power of that rupture to drive weight loss. And then she got fat again, one sighed, acknowledging the near inevitability of middle-aged spread in loneliness. We resumed eating and drinking.
What struck me about this conversation was how different it was from the way I had often imagined men talking about women. When I had dreamed of being the fly on the wall in the locker room, the imagined conversations were less affectionate and more hurtful. I wanted to write about it.
The magazine editor liked my loopy, open-ended story. But she worried that most female readers wanted to hear about how men were judging them—since that was what they feared—and not about their commiseration. The reality was much more interesting, I responded. Why cast men as villains and women as victims? Why turn men and women into Mad Men cartoons? Aren't we beyond that?
I changed the subject to provide another example: If a man doesn't call you right away after a date, I don't think that means anything, I said.
There was a silence.
If he doesn't call you in three days, isn't he "just not that into you," she asked?
I have yet to begin the piece.
Not long after that, I was given Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. The book, which I had always thought of as belonging to my mother's generation, was published in 1963, the year before I was born; it has sold more than three million copies. I had never read it. I have since done an informal poll among women I know who teach in universities, and most of them not only have not read the book, but also looked startled when I asked them about it, as if I had mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Norton is republishing the book about "the problem that has no name" in a 50th-anniversary edition this month, with a new introduction by Gail Collins and an afterword by Anna Quindlen. The edition also includes Friedan's epilogue, written at the 10-year mark, in 1973, by which time she had, among other things, helped found the National Organization for Women. In that epilogue, Friedan recalls how, in the 1960s, before she wrote the book, women's-magazine editors had tried to force her to rewrite her articles to cater to their advertisers' pro-housewife line, or else they killed the pieces.
Some things have changed less than we would like.
The persistence of editorial conformity to the prevalent culture was hardly my only revelation. The Feminine Mystique is fantastic. On page after page, I found myself comparing it favorably with the WOW of 2012. I started out thinking that contemporary writing by women—the descendants of Friedan—shows how far we've come. But as I read on, I began to think that Friedan was more persuasive.
Compared with Friedan, many WOW seem shrunken or contorted in their arguments, distracted by trivia. Five years from now, will anyone take seriously The End of Men and The Richer Sex's arguments that men are the new women, much less Vagina's argument that men have to change the way they treat female genitalia?
As for Anne-Marie Slaughter's argument that unless there is a radical rearranging of flextime and child care, women will be unable to have both children and high-achieving careers, I can say only that she will probably be known as the Marie Antoinette of her generation. Women who make far less money than she does and who have far fewer choices have been dealing with the difficulties of child care and inflexible work schedules for a very long time; that she is just discovering these problems speaks more of her sense of entitlement and the academic bubble in which she has lived than any plausible solutions she has managed to put forward.
None of those arguments is more convincing than Friedan's—that women must achieve what she calls "their full human capacities" despite the many factors holding them back.
You could say that it would be impossible for any WOW to make that argument today because women have advanced significantly since 1963. And yet their abandonment of Friedan's position is one of the things that makes them hard to read. In contrast to Friedan's ambition and expansiveness, the WOW of 2012 are narrowcasting, as they used to say in radio. They are either too narcissistically self-helpy or too wonkishly impersonal, or both.
Friedan wades into women's lives, painting a picture of how myriad forces created the feminine mystique. It is as though she is reworking one of the great reform classics of the early 20th century, like The Pit or The Jungle. You believe completely in the vortex sucking women under: In the first few pages, the reader is swept into birthrates, education, India, kitchen design, and diets.
Compared with Friedan's 1963 book, the new WOW also fall short as works of writing. They seem to either chirp or thunder rather than evoke, as Friedan does. They do not offer her sweeping take on women and society, and not only do they reject psychology, but they seem not to understand it. Slaughter is outraged when some female assistant professors asked her to stop talking about her children in public, telling her that it detracted from her "gravitas." She reflects: "It is interesting that parenthood and gravitas don't go together." She goes on to insist that her colleagues add her children to her bio when they introduce her.
The junior professors are right. Having children, while surely an accomplishment, is irrelevant to Slaughter's then-role as a dean, and she should not whirl them around at every occasion. Slaughter is just as annoying as people at the movie theater who kick your seat after you ask them to stop. She wants you to recognize her excellence in every area, at every moment, whether it is relevant or not.
Unlike the meaty Feminine Mystique, there is a provisional quality to the WOW. They seem to have been dashed off for a classroom assignment, to collect book advances, or to present at a Senate hearing in Washington. What the WOW do not do is read as though they were necessary to write. And if the WOW are not necessary for the writer, they are not necessary for the reader.
By contrast, The Feminine Mystique is lively, astute, and ferocious. The price of its writing is clear in every line. Sure, the book exploded onto the market at a time when there was nothing like it. But The Feminine Mystique emits rage, Friedan's, on behalf of the women she met and interviewed, the injustices she saw and experienced. And she is able to humbly take a step back and describe what she sees. Friedan is talking about issues that concerned all women then and still concern women now: the struggle to be human in a gendered world. That is still worth talking about. But Slaughter, for example, was not really struggling to define herself or the plight of women in her Atlantic piece "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." She was struggling to advance her own career.
Over the years, critics have discredited The Feminine Mystique on many counts: The book fails to adequately recognize Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), which is considered a major work of feminist philosophy and the starting point of second-wave feminism; much of the social science the book cites does not hold up; its takes on Margaret Mead and Freud are silly; Friedan ignores working-class, African-American, and gay women, whom she would in 1969 call "the lavender menace." Her biographers have pointed out that she was no desperate housewife, as she claimed, but rather a left-leaning journalist.
Nonetheless, The Feminine Mystique should be required reading for anyone who cares about women. Take the famous first paragraph, which manages to be both humble and sweeping, a fairy tale:
"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—is this all?"
Flash forward 50 years. Here is Rosin's first paragraph of The End of Men, which is both more memoirish and more tentative:
"In 2009, in a beach town in Virginia where my family had been vacationing for several years, I noticed something curious. Every time I ventured away from the houses rented by the vacationers—to the supermarket, say, or the ice cream store—I almost never saw any men."
Rosin's is the most writerly of the works on women, but although her modest beginning tries to leap from a personal observation to an ambitious theory of what is wrong, Friedan is more humane. Her book contains actual suffering human beings. Rosin rushes through the worlds she reports on, labeling her characters with trendy nicknames like "Cardboard Man" and "Plastic Woman," as if that proved her case. Yet even she admits in her conclusion that those labels hardly capture the new reality, people's choices and stumbles.
Both Rosin and Mundy are guilty of the "glass half-full" approach to what women have gained, and both writers take the men and women they interview at face value, or nearly so. In Chapter One, "Hearts of Steel: Single Girls Master the Hook-Up," Rosin interviews Sabrina, who initially poses as a manlike dude hunter. Rosin wants to use Sabrina to show how women have adopted stereotypically male behavior and to show that women who sleep with more than one man are neither sluts nor "weepy stereotypes."
OK. And yet, as Rosin acknowledges, her own source may not be a reliable narrator: "My larger problem was my inability to judge how much of what she said was bluster and how much she said was real." In fact, Sabrina, it turns out, was just waiting for the right guy to come along.
Slaughter's Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All"—appropriating the Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown's wacky promise that women could "have it all"—has a problem that appears, at first glance, to veer in the opposite direction. The tagline for that story, "It's time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed," is laughable. As journalists have pointed out, the only way you could believe that "having it all" is more than a slogan designed to sell magazines is if you are so besotted with your own entitlement that you thought you deserved "it all" in the first place.
Slaughter's first paragraph swivels through a gala held in New York City. The entree into what turns out to be a wonkish list of suggestions for how government could improve women's lives begins as a movie in which the Slaughter character will undoubtedly be played by Catherine Zeta-Jones:
"Eighteen months into my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations' annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled."
Another problem with Slaughter's endorsement of having it all is that when Gurley Brown used the phrase, she was not referring to what is now celebrated as "life-work balance." When she said "having it all," she limited it to mean work, sex, and money. She hated children. And she did not believe that government could or would help women. "You have to do it yourself," she argued.
This new round of writing on women is even worse on sex than on money. The Feminine Mystique is prim. It relies on Friedan's belief that women use sex as compensation for losses and sorrows, and it's gloomy about what third-wave feminists regard as sex's liberational possibilities. In the chapter "The Sex Seekers," Friedan describes women's using sex as a substitute for their larger frustration. "There was a strange unreal quality about their words," she writes. "They made mysterious allusions or broad hints: they were eager to be asked about sex; even if I did not ask, they took pride in recounting the explicit details of some sexual adventure."
Whereas Friedan regards sex as something that can take many forms and has many functions, for all the supposed sexual liberation since 1963, the writers who do actually take on sex treat it as something that is done to women or as something you purchase, something that is ablated from life.
Take Vagina's description of studies about sexuality and rats: "For the saline group, it was prom night. Excitement, activity, interaction! ... The naloxone females, in contrast, ... all looked like characters in an Ibsen play." Besides the fact that Wolf obviously has not read Ibsen in a long time—his female characters are not all shrill, sex-starved monsters—her reliance on rats makes it difficult to take any of her recommendations seriously, including ones that actually have merit, like the pornographic merits for women of Anaïs Nin over Henry Miller.
Reading Wolf, I remembered that most of the nonfiction works about sex that I like are by men, who seem able to write about sex without attaching it to some larger political point. (Erica Jong is an exception.) Wolf's book cannot compete with Richard Rhodes's little-known memoir, Making Love (1992), which, despite its poignancy, describes sex in all its comedy and variety. Rhodes is not afraid to look greedy or silly as he pursues his sexual obsession over the years. He manages to be intimate without being confessional. He never flinches from the truth about his appetites, no matter how unpleasant or unconventional. He is not a prude. Wolf, on the other hand, keeps her shirt on while paying for a session with a "yoni healer."
Sexual experimentation or anything that does not conform to bourgeois norms is too messy for the current generation of WOW to dig into. Both Wolf and Rosin write about a 2010 incident at Yale in which some fraternity members crashed a "Take Back the Night" event to chant, "No means yes! Yes means anal!" Rosin, a liberal journalist, suggests that this incident may not mean what conservatives want it to mean—that so-called "hook-up culture" on college campuses necessarily leads to cruelty, stupidity, and meanness. Wolf contends that the women hearing those words "sense that there is a wider risk to them," by which she means that their very creativity and intellect suffer. But I don't think the incident represents a significant cultural moment. I certainly don't endorse the frat boys' words, but neither do I see it as the most pressing gender inequity on the planet.
These works on women lack particularity in both their recounting of the problems women face and the alleged solutions. Their shortsightedness shows that it is unfashionable to write about women unsentimentally, as Friedan did. The obstacles that she wrote about—standing up for yourself, fashioning an identity, finding love and work you care about—are not the subjects of these books and articles. But they are the subjects I want to read about.
At the end of the foreword of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan writes: "There would be no sense in my writing this book at all if I did not believe that women can affect society as well as be affected by it: that, in the end, a woman, as a man, has the power to choose, and to make her own heaven or hell." Her force carries through. Until I read the review of a book or an article about women that starts from that point of view, I'm not reading another word.