Feminine Mystiquers | The Nation


Feminine Mystiquers

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But not too seriously. Date rape, for example, can't have anything to do with "the patriarchy"--in other words, men--because we now live in a postsexist age. After all, Williams College has Women's Pride Week, right? Instead, Shalit proposes "that the woes besetting the modern young woman--sexual harassment, stalking, rape, even 'whirlpooling' (when a group of guys surround a girl who is swimming, and then sexually assault her)--are all expressions of a society which has lost its respect for female modesty."

About the Author

Kim Phillips-Fein
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She...

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And why has "society" lost its respect for female modesty? Because women, corrupted by feminism, aren't modest anymore. It turns out that--in addition to whirlpooling--anorexia, depression and even bad sex can all be attributed to loose women. Men were perfect gentlemen--opening doors, giving up seats, courting patiently--till women started sleeping with them whether they held doors or not. "How can we expect men to be honorable when a large number of women consistently send them the message that they do not have to be?" As for men listening to women without the spur of sexual blackmail, forget it! "Women can't tell men how to behave--they either inspire, or fail to inspire."

Despite the occasional Rousseau quote to assure us of her precocity, Shalit's main source of reading material--besides econ textbooks and women's magazines--appears to be bodice-ripping romance novels. She loves duels and seems to believe that the appropriate response to a failed romance just might be suicide.

Crittenden, on the other hand, has no illusions that men behaved better in the era of hoop skirts, swoons, smelling salts and gentleman callers. Both then and now, she sees men as unappealing louts and cads who, despite their flaws, are by a cruel trick of biology the sole ticket to female happiness. If Shalit justifies her antifeminism with gallant Jimmy Stewarts and blushing maidens, Crittenden sees men who'll leave their wives at a moment's notice for a big-breasted blonde. Shalit believes young women are innately modest and must be brainwashed by feminist cadres into thinking they want premarital sex. Surely you couldn't want to do that, she whispers coyly, cringing and turning pink.

For Crittenden, though, young women's sexuality is all too real. In fact, it's to blame for older women's misery. At first, young women "strut about like female Don Juans," wearing miniskirts and lipstick, "virtually daring men to become sexually entangled with them." But soon, their sexual power fades; they can't compete with the new, younger crop of downtown divas. Eyes getting "crinkly," the career girl suddenly craves a baby: "Her apartment feels too quiet, her work, no matter how exciting or interesting, is less absorbing, and her spare time, unless packed with frenetic activities, almost echoes with loneliness--think of an endless wintry Sunday afternoon unbroken by the sound of another voice." Even if she does manage, somehow, to marry, those selfish girls have ruined marriage for everyone: "If young, attractive women offer no-strings-attached sex, then men will have no pressing reason to tie themselves down." Stay-at-home wives are naturally hostile toward working women who might steal their men: "What woman wants a hungry shark trawling near her shore?" Crittenden hits an especially shrill note in her chapter on "Aging," in which she expresses disgust for the women in their mid-30s and 40s with gray hair and lined faces she sees with their children at the playground. What man would stay with one of them?

Shalit and Crittenden believe that women are self-sacrificing creatures, happiest in love. "Modern women" are in trouble because they've been sucked, against their natures, into an agonistic, commercial culture. The images of the neurotic 35-year-old sitting near the monkey bars, the sleek, anxious office professional, the green-haired college feminist, are supposed to awaken instant discomfort, like a picture of a deformed child. But the key assertion is that women's "problems"--and, implicitly, the larger problems of our culture--can be solved if women simply admit their feminine wishes and do what they've really wanted to do all along: Stay virgins till marriage, marry young and have kids early.

Neither writer offers a shred of evidence for her claims, which makes these books second-rate agitprop rather than "first-rate sociology" (the gushing claim for Shalit's book by the editor of Partisan Review). How could they? Their basic claim--that women can't get married these days--is simply false: If either one bothered to look at the census, she'd see that the overwhelming majority of the female population still gets married, for better or for worse. In Shalit's beloved 1890s the percentage of women between 35 and 44 who'd never been married was a scant two percentage points lower than what it is today (12 percent). It's true that women are marrying later--especially compared with thirty years ago--but they're still getting married. And when you factor in the couple million women "co-habitating" without the blessing of the state (including lesbians), not to mention women who are single by choice--it does happen!--this new "problem that has no name" simply disappears.

Shalit and Crittenden don't understand divorce either. Implicitly or explicitly, both advocate early marriage. But in fact, today early marriage tends to undermine marital stability: Women who've married after 30 are less likely to divorce, while women who marry in their teens--or who've interrupted their education to marry--are more likely to do so. Something else greatly increases the likelihood of marital breakdown: being poor. Of course, neither writer suggests raising wages to increase marital stability. And it's strange to suggest that bored husbands divorce their wives for "smart, attractive, and, above all, unencumbered" young women. Not only are women more likely to initiate divorce, but women who get divorced are more likely to express serious problems with their marriage before divorce than are men, casting some doubt on Crittenden's "why stay married when I can meet young women at a bar any night of the week" hypothesis. (Granted, Crittenden is not very interested in women's unhappiness in marriage: Her rallying cry is, "It's time to settle.")

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