The Next City
June 21, 1999
What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman
by Danielle Crittenden (Simon & Schuster, 1999. 224 pages)
A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue
by Wendy Shalit (HarperCollins, 1999. 291 pages)
PROMINENT U.S. FEMINIST KATHA POLLITT ONCE SAID THAT FEMINISM PROMISED women “a life not just with more justice but also with more freedom, more self-respect, more choices, more pleasure.” And the National Organization for Women’s Patricia Ireland weighed in with similar sentiments in her autobiography: “The essence of feminism for me is the freedom to live our lives as we please and to reinvent the world as we do so.” That onerous costs — for women and society — may accompany such radical freedom does not seem to have occurred to these women, or to countless other feminists.
Since the late ’80s, several women have written books attacking feminism’s more utopian ideas, including Danielle Crittenden and Wendy Shalit, the latest entrants into this hypercharged debate. Crittenden’s book has predictably, and tediously, drawn endless blasts of white-hot rage from feminist reviewers and commentators. What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us “is a hobo stew of cast-off, diluted and mouldering ideas,” fumes Lynn Crosbie in a Globe and Mail review that never rises higher than a petulant rant. “The real difference between Crittenden and most women is that she is wealthy [and] well connected,” writes Pollitt in a typically ad hominem New York Times piece. The blind anger is understandable to anyone who has read the book. Crittenden gleefully and savagely pokes fun at some of the more asinine advice some feminists have given women. And there is a lot: One wonders what the normally moderate and sensible Betty Friedan was thinking when she advised women who are alone in their old age to take up masturbation or lesbianism.
Crittenden argues that many women today are dissatisfied with what matters most to them. By this she means their intimate lives — marriage, family, and children. Women may have won new freedom and independence through the women’s movement, she writes, but it has involved some painful trade-offs.
Yet Crittenden does not simply say that the past was better and call for women to return to their ’50s kitchens, as some of her detractors have claimed. In fact, she clearly acknowledges that the “new freedom [won by the women’s movement] is a great accomplishment” (Crittenden’s emphasis), and agrees that “nostalgically wishing to go back” is impossible. However, she sees an irony in women’s lives today: “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.”
Crittenden identifies some of these aspects as “the pleasure of being a wife or of raising children or of making a home” and reminds us that a previous generation of women regarded them as the most natural things in the world. But today, women wonder whether marriage is right for them and whether having children will compromise their individuality. The truth, Crittenden writes, is that, at heart, most modern women want the essentials of “husband, children, home, work.” (She cites long-term polls to support this.) Even though she doesn’t explicitly say so, she clearly believes most women would rank the first three over the last. “The woman who doesn’t want these things,” she writes, “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.” Crittenden goes on to accuse ’60s and ’70s feminists of doing exactly this and then compounding the problem by not telling women of the sometimes irreversible trade-offs involved in postponing marriage to pursue a career, or in juggling marriage, children, and career.
Many feminists have questioned the validity of this accusation, and Crittenden’s right to speak for women (Crosbie calls Crittenden’s main argument an “idiot’s premise”), but countless articles, books, and surveys confirm Crittenden’s assertions. Consider this: a December 1989 Time magazine article (titled “Onward Women” and quite favorable to feminism) reported that Catherine Lo Galbo Goodfriend, a highly successful accounts manager for Kraft General Foods, once confronted Gloria Steinem at an awards dinner. Goodfriend demanded to know why the movement had not told ambitious, career-minded women that “the trade-offs and sacrifices [a woman] has to make are far greater than a man’s.” Steinem, a founder of modern feminism, lamely responded, “Well, we didn’t know.”
The same article reports that “the bitterest complaints come from the growing ranks of women who have reached 40 and find themselves childless, having put their careers first.” And a spate of books — A Lesser Life by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and The Biological Clock by Molly McKaughan, to name a couple — echo this dissatisfaction. Even feminist matriarch Friedan admits in The Second Stage that “our failure was our blind spot about the family. It was our own extreme reaction against that mother-wife role.” In a 1997 New York Times review of several national polls, Sarah Boxer reported that most women feel that the women’s movement has not bettered their individual lives. Rather than confront these discomfiting facts, feminists prefer to get mad, accusing people like Crittenden of using “crackpot statistics.”
Some of Crittenden’s critics have argued that today’s feminism is “flexible” and “accommodating,” including diverse viewpoints that nullify Crittenden’s criticisms, but this is only in some cases, and belatedly so. Moreover, where have feminists vigorously defended motherhood as a viable career option? Where is the feminist support for heterosexual marriage and the traditional family? Instead, prominent feminists like Barbara Ehrenreich write: “Yes, divorce is bad — but so is the institution that generates it: marriage.” Feminists have ceded traditional marriage and family to the political right, preferring to support all kinds of “alternative arrangements.” Consequently, they have had to engage in the most creative intellectual contortions to explain why most women refuse to call themselves feminists.
Crittenden arouses the greatest ire when she discusses female autonomy, career, delaying marriage, and children — sensitive issues, especially for those women whom they directly affect. A single, childless 45-year old woman who has invested everything in a career and still desires a husband and family doesn’t want to be told that time may be running out. But Crittenden performs a necessary if thankless task; she lays bare the real choices that women face when making life’s decisions, and in this she is more honest than feminists.
She argues that in pursuing independence, some women have lost the ability to make the compromises that help in finding and keeping a mate. Autonomy works against commitment to a marriage: If women withhold parts of themselves, how can they expect men not to do the same? She then points out the obvious truth: If a woman — especially an educated woman — eventually wants to get married and have children, she is taking a big risk if she waits until her late thirties or early forties. It is a given in every other culture but this one, that the chances of finding a mate diminish precipitously for women as their fertility declines.
Wendy Shalit focusses on a narrower issue — female sexual behavior. Unlike Crittenden, Shalit yearns for a bygone era, when women did not seek casual sex like men and were more “modest.” Citing increased reports of date rape and sexual harassment, Shalit argues that more promiscuity has not empowered women or made their lives better, only created more problems.
Her writing style reveals her youth — she is 23 and sometimes sounds as if she just left high school — so it is easy to dismiss her arguments as naive. But she has essentially valid points: Women are not men, when women adopt male sexual strategies they are harmed by it, and a decline in respect for women almost inevitably accompanies a decline in female sexual reserve. One can argue from now until the cows come home about why this happens, but this is something that most men know, and many women today seem to have forgotten. Shalit believes that sexual modesty will return sexual power and dignity to women and put them in a position to demand more meaningful relationships from men. In other words, women want love, commitment, and good behavior from men, otherwise they ain’t gettin’ any.
Both men and women will profit from a level-headed reading of these two books. Anyone who dismisses them out of hand is either a party line feminist or seriously mistaken.