The Expectations Gap

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 25, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- A friend says with a fine and frustrated humor that she has achieved exactly the right look for the '90s. Her consciousness is all raised up with no place to go.

From time to time, it will appear in a letter to the editor or to a senator. When Anita Hill is pilloried or the man at work says something outrageous or she reads about leaking breast implants, it will spontaneously combust over lunch or on the phone with friends. And then she will return to the everyday concerns of her desktop, her family and her bills.

This friend is not unique. She describes the dress code for the moment of transition. Today the attention to the debate about every detail of a woman's life, whether she is a rape accuser or a candidate's wife, is higher than ever. But the concern is fragmented, haphazard, disconnected from programs or leaders.

Only at times do we wonder: What gets the momentum back into the women's movement.

Movements, like revolutions, gain their energy from rising expectations, and that was true for the wave of feminism that began in the late '60s. Women who found each other and fueled change had been educated for one life and relegated to another. Betty Friedan's middle-class housewives and the ''coeds'' of the student revolution both chafed against second-sex status.

But when women shared the status of outsiders, it was easier to share the goal of getting inside. To keep their eyes on the prize.

Now women are both inside and outside. A movement that celebrated individuality suffers from its divisiveness. The prizes themselves are scattered, elusive, and often subject to second thoughts about men, women, values and rights.

Nevertheless, what is growing under the cover of uncertainty, under all the restlessness about women's lives, is another set of raised expectations. Today's ''problem that has no name'' is the gap between the expectations built up in the last 25 years and reality that has changed far more slowly.

It's a gap that has grown among both veterans of the women's movement and those who have been labeled ''post-feminists.'' If this movement is to move again, the energy will come from all those people who live inside this gap, sharing more common ground and common frustrations than they may recognize.

They are young mothers, daughters of feminism, who expected to stay on the fast track and left it for motherhood because their firms and companies expect 70-hour weeks. They are women in their 20s who grew up assuming independence and find their freedom limited by fear of male violence in the dorms and on the streets.

They are women who find it impossible to believe that ''they'' might take abortion rights away. Women who look in vain for a skirt among the suits at a Senate hearing or an international conference. Or sometimes find one.

They are women who have made it into the inner circle of men only to become conscious of how hard it is to make a difference. They are women who struggled with their own self-image only to watch their daughters immersed in a magazine of messages about female flaws and products for improvement.

They are women as well who are discouraged by the realization that ''they don't get it,'' angered by an image on MTV, turned off by a blonde joke, and exhausted by the sheer tenacity of the way things are. And they are also the men who share the lives and perspectives of these women.

Margaret Mead once said that the only way to solve the disruption that comes from change is with more change. For the past ten years, we've attempted to salve the disruption by thwarting further change. And it doesn't work.

A constituency for a second generation of change exists now in the expectations gap. Those who populate this fertile territory are not monolithic. But there is broad agreement on the directions for change if not on the details. What is needed is both leadership and the clear restatement of an agenda that puts the pieces of lives together. That agenda begins with the need to maintain rights -- including abortion rights -- won over the past 20 years, but it doesn't stop there.

It places a priority on family policy in both Washington and the workplace to help families catch up to the changes in society. It includes as part of this whole a strong and unified opposition to violence.

And underlying all of it is the insistence that women be heard. That our voices and our life experiences count at last in all the places where our future is decided.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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