Feminine Mystiquers

Feminine Mystiquers

For Danielle Crittenden, the “click” came when she was going to play tennis with her husband and a couple of acquaintances. She left her racket on one side of the court.


For Danielle Crittenden, the “click” came when she was going to play tennis with her husband and a couple of acquaintances. She left her racket on one side of the court. When she went to get it, she noticed her husband had left his too, so she picked it up. When she got back to the group, one woman said, “Oh darn, I was going to congratulate you for not bringing it.”


Crittenden suddenly realized that her most casual interaction with her husband might be criticized by an outsider who, stoked with feminist nostrums, would find lingering female subservience in the most innocent acts. “What sort of behavior would I be capable of next? Fetching him his newspaper and slippers? Having a chilled martini ready for him when he came home from work?” And so she set out to write What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, an antifeminist tract for the nineties. Its release date neatly coincided with Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, a similar tale of a young girl coming of age in this crazy postfeminist world.

It’s more than a little disingenuous for Crittenden to present herself as being prompted into reaction by a harmless conversation over tennis. A seasoned journalist and founder of the right-wing Independent Women’s Forum publication The Women’s Quarterly, she’s certainly no stranger to antifeminism. Nor is 23-year-old Wendy Shalit, whose stream-of-consciousness ramblings on boyfriends, college and virginity have been gussied up into a book by which Shalit herself will certainly be embarrassed in a few years; she’s a frequent writer for conservative journals like Commentary. Together with other self-styled feminists like Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Christina Hoff Sommers, the two represent an odd new trend in right-wing thinking: The antifeminist appeal is today being made on grounds of women’s well-being and satisfaction, in language that explicitly recalls Betty Friedan.

Contributing to one’s eerie sense that all conservative books just might emanate from the same few ghostwriters, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us and A Return to Modesty are remarkably similar, both in their anecdotal style and in their obsessions. Both writers get frantic over coed bathrooms (Shalit, one of whose first big articles for Commentary was titled “A Ladies’ Room of One’s Own,” has built her entire career on this unpromising foundation). Both note how revealing it is that we’re “flocking to Jane Austen movies.” Both feel obliged to establish their sympathies with mainstream economics. Shalit refers to her Chicago-school economist father, and Crittenden uses market metaphors to talk about sex: “When something becomes widely and cheaply available, its value usually goes down too.”

Most important, both books are modeled on The Feminine Mystique–Crittenden’s self-consciously, Shalit’s less so. Like Betty Friedan, both use women’s magazines, those hoary rags devoted to shilling skin creams and facial masks, to gain some insight into the female psyche. But unlike Friedan, neither writer treats Cosmopolitan, Glamour or Redbook with any hint of irony or sense of disjuncture between the claims of the magazines and real women’s lives. For instance, they find that women are horribly anxious about their looks and their relationships with men. According to Cosmo? You don’t say!

But the effort to rewrite The Feminine Mystique for the postfeminist nineties goes well beyond a few quotes from women’s magazines. Inverting Friedan’s famous formulation, both writers argue that “while we now recognize that women are human, we blind ourselves to the fact that we are also women,” as Crittenden puts it. Feminism’s fatal flaw, they say, is that it taught women to ignore their “fundamental female desires” for husband, home and family. A quarter-century after second-wave feminism, “the modern woman” is miserable and confused. Professional success doesn’t make her happy, and her newfound independence makes it impossible for her to get what she really wants: a good husband and children. To find and keep husbands, women must stop having sex outside marriage, and they must stop deceiving themselves about wanting a job. Only then will men treat them as ladies, and only then will they be able to have stable homes. If Friedan thought women were languishing in suburban kitchens, Shalit and Crittenden think they are frustrated and desperate in office towers. What modern women really want, as Shalit puts it, is “our ‘feminine mystique’ back.”

Although both writers posit basic, immutable differences between men and women, their claims of female difference don’t hinge on female ineptitude. Both take it for granted that women can become lawyers and doctors and philosophy professors, excel in school, do math. (Construction jobs don’t come up, given the authors’ upper-middle-class milieu.) For Shalit, the realization of basic female difference came at college. When she was growing up, her beloved father–her mother isn’t mentioned–never treated her differently because she was a girl. “When I returned home from the prom, after all, I could discuss anything I chose with my father.” But then Shalit got to Williams College. She noticed the anorexic girls, stick-thin and exhausted. She observed protests against date rape. She listened to her friends complain about their boyfriends. And finally, she decided that the conservatives should “take the claims of the feminists seriously.”

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.”

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.”)

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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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