A CONSPIRACY theory is making the rounds and it's surprisingly comprehensive. It takes as its victim nothing less than all American women. In this plot, the hydra-headed enemy consists of the press, cosmetics industry, fashion advertisers, lawyers, doctors and, of course, men, all supposedly working together to wage an undeclared, invidious war on women -- a so-called backlash against feminism.
According to this plot, women have been manipulated into rejecting feminism. And, in the process, they are destroying themselves by choosing inappropriate values and goals for their lives. Since everybody loves a good conspiracy, this theory has gotten much play in the media. The trouble is, it's dead wrong.
The successful women I know and meet do not find themselves at war with men. As the chief executive of my own company, I have traveled throughout the U.S. and talked to hundreds of women, each with her own point of view. They come from various economic, political, racial and religious backgrounds; they are all leading very different lives. But what they have in common impresses me: great energy and enthusiasm for the choices they are making for their lives.
The conspiratorial view insults these women. They are not so addle-brained that they can be brainwashed so easily. Can't it simply be that women wear makeup because they choose to, that intelligent, independent women legitimately want to look and feel good?
They are the first to realize that the playing field isn't even and that women have more obstacles to overcome than men do. But successful women find it more productive to concentrate on overcoming the obstacles, not on whining about them. These women know life is a series of small battles, some lost, but many won.
By the year 2000, according to forecasts by the Small Business Administration, more than half of small businesses in America will be owned by women. These women face incredible challenges, but their achievements lie in circumventing personal roadblocks and finding their way to the other side -- without succumbing to the victim mentality.
Today's woman may be a full-time mother. Or she can work for someone else or herself. Or she can do both at the same time. The trouble starts when people try to pigeonhole women. Are you a feminist or a traditionalist? Are you a homemaker or a career woman? Such labels are hopelessly inadequate to describe today's woman. They persist because they are convenient -- a shorthand way to sum people up. If there's a backlash today it's against those reductive ways of thinking. It's the backlash of strong-minded women refusing to fit the stereotypes of themselves.
Can a feminist love great clothes and wonderful shoes? Is she any less a feminist if she has a perfect manicure? What if she doesn't work but has the privilege of choosing to stay home, using her skills to benefit her family, local schools and the great volunteer network unique to this country? Does that mean she's an anti-feminist?
It's time to acknowledge that we have many lives and choices. Choosing one road does not make one woman better, brighter or happier than one who chooses another road. If it's the path that makes you happy, that's what matters. Isn't that what feminism was supposed to be about? Instead of "feminists" or "traditionalists," most women are simply realists. The idea that there is only one right way to live your life is wrong.
The late psychiatrist Carl Rogers said, "Through accepting my only individuality, which I can't expect everyone else to recognize and pat me on the back for, I shape my goals and desires. I am not compelled to be a victim of unknown forces in myself. I am not compelled to be simply a creature of others, molded by their experiences or shaped by their demands."
No woman should accept any less.
Georgette Mosbacher, former chairman and chief executive officer of La Prairie Worldwide Inc., has been in the cosmetics business for more than a decade.