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Feminine Mystiquers | The Nation

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Feminine Mystiquers

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But why bother with facts when the topic is women? Neither Crittenden nor Shalit denies the accomplishments of second-wave feminism: Instead, they seek to transform the remarkable victories feminism has achieved into dismal failures--transgressions of an underlying, unchanged nature. Young professional women discover that "the feminist ideas on which they were weaned do not lead them to happier lives but only to loneliness, stress, and the forfeiture of the most joyous experiences of a woman's life," according to Crittenden. At other times, it seems Shalit and Crittenden want to pick and choose--access to higher education but not sexual freedom; employment in the professions but no delayed marriage--without admitting that to be treated equally as students and employees, women can't be placed on a pedestal or treated as though the only thing that really matters to them is husband and children.

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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The truth is that political feminism has dramatically changed women's lives for the better, and at much less cost than Shalit and Crittenden insist. In my experience (and as long as anecdote is the standard, why shouldn't my experience count?), women don't feel intense psychic dissonance or overwhelming guilt because they have lives outside the home: Very few young women--especially the well-educated young women Shalit and Crittenden describe--want to give up work for family. It is true, of course, that balancing the demands of work and family can be extremely difficult, but this is a problem with a name: inflexible work hours and inadequate childcare.

Thanks also to political feminism, young women today don't think there's a contradiction between having a sex life and deserving respect from men. Nor do they want to give up on finding husbands and partners who aren't just "inspired" by them but love, respect and listen to them. For many, this means waiting till they've grown up to get married, not getting hitched to the first halfway-decent man who comes along. After all, a hundred years ago women didn't get married young because they understood something we don't about love; they did it because they had no choice.

Still, the Shalit and Crittenden account of modern American culture as shallow, competitive and amoral is likely to resonate with some readers. It's absurd to suggest--as they do--that American life is more viciously Darwinian today than it was in the 1890s. It was pretty viciously Darwinian then. In the early part of this century, sociologists like Caroline Ware and Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd observed how impoverished American society was by its mores of unfettered individualism and how difficult it is to found a new culture on the principle of private gain. So feminism isn't to blame for the ascendance of market norms in private life. The panoply of sins enumerated by the anti-feminists--premarital sex, single parenthood, delayed childbearing--did not call into being the culture of the strip mall, the TV set and the self-help book.

The antifeminist appeal to women to give up sex and work for the good of the culture is a cynical, inherently conservative effort to silence a real political question--what kind of society is best for human beings?--and replace it with a vision of domestic utopia.

Reminiscent of Christopher Lasch, Crittenden describes the family as a realm of "duties and sacrifices...incomparable love." (Socialism in one tract house?) Shalit, sounding more like a New Age hippie, thinks romantic love used to be "beautiful and true" but has been corrupted by a selfish, competitive individualism. "Everything and everyone is up for grabs, and we always face the harsh world directly, unmediated by any enduring sentiment other than each out for him- or herself." Aside from her fixation on Victorian-era marriage--which, far from being the epitome of romance, was often just a business deal under another name--what's strange here is that in the rest of life, Shalit would, if she followed through on her father's free-market faith, embrace a world in which everyone was "out for him- or herself" (or himself, anyway).

This contradictory insistence on the absolute freedom of the market and the absolute rigidity of gender roles has been around for quite some time. The organization of the bourgeois family of the mid-nineteenth century, as Eric Hobsbawm writes, was in direct opposition to the bourgeois economy: "Within it freedom, opportunity, the cash nexus and the pursuit of individual profit did not rule." On one level, then, the neocons appeal to a longstanding human need to evaluate life by some standard other than profit and loss, which helps explain why family-values furor has mounted during the long turn toward free-market economics. Recoiling from hyperindividualism, women like Crittenden and Shalit yearn for romance and the family, a mini-society governed by love and mutual understanding.

But that isn't all. The traditional family is hardly an egalitarian institution, and herein lies the other pole of its appeal: In a world in which all is shifting and in flux, it provides--if only in fantasy--a certain source of authority for men and security for women. "Because superiority was so uncertain for the individual, it had to have one form that was permanent and secure," writes Hobsbawm of the nineteenth century. "Because its essential expression was money, which merely expresses the relationship of exchange, other forms of expression which demonstrated the domination of persons over persons had to supplement it." No wonder, then, that in an era of deepening economic and social insecurity, neoconservatives should seize once more on the old ideal of the family.

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