'Work' -- feminism locked in the '60's

March 17, 1996|By Maggie Gallagher | Maggie Gallagher,special to the sun

"Work Matters: Women Talk About Their Jobs and Their Lives," by Sara Ann Friedman. Viking. 284 pages. $24.95 What do women want? cried Freud and despaired. And he never had to deal with modern orthodox feminism, particularly the confused, dithering variety on display in "Work Matters."

For a glimpse of the state of the soul of the contemporary women's movement, go no farther, but be warned: it's not a pretty sight, especially for a woman. Does one really need to interview 200 women, for example, to come to this shattering conclusion: "What we do matters to us."?

If this book is any sign, feminism is collapsing under the weight of its own absurdities, dissolving into an infant cry for a warm, salty womb of its own, without boundary, limits or (horrors) the need to make choices in one's life or one's thoughts. Summarizing the different wildly contradictory strands of orthodox feminism, "radical and cultural feminists, essentialists and social constructionists, transformative and equal opportunity feminists ..." she urges "accepting the difficult notion that they are all right, each apparent contradiction rejecting and containing the other."

"There is no either/or, only both and many. I desire and disdain success. I want to be risk-taking and thoughtful, gentle and aggressive, empathetic and competitive, to think in a linear and circular way, to earn a lot of money and not care about it at all ... to listen to the baseball scores and to the rhythmic commanding voice of the Great Mother Goddess."

Good luck.

The rhetoric, like feminism itself, is oddly frozen in the '70s. For Ms. Friedman, getting a job is a great existential drama. To embark on one (as she did in the late '60s) requires both years of therapy beforehand (to pierce through the feminine mystique) and afterwards (to cope with guilt produced by same).

Even now she is wracked with a bad case of penis envy. "For men (because of women), life and work have formed an integrated whole. For women, society's message has been clear: low self-esteem, deference to others, avoidance of competition, and the belief that our lives are made whole only by men." Well honey, the grass is always greener, ain't it?

"Work Matters" is a blast from the past, speaking in a language increasingly incomprehensible to my generation of women for whom work is neither a revolutionary act nor a therapeutic psychodrama. Indeed, if there is one powerful undercurrent running through the book, it is the desire of younger women for more time with their own children, including the author's daughter, who is "determined to avoid day care" for her newborn and "would like to work less, even a lot less while her daughter is young."

Some women go to heroic lengths to stay close to their babies: Stacy worked all night in a 7-Eleven so she could take care of her own newborn, coming home from work at 6:30 a.m.: "I'd feed her, put her to sleep, take a two-hour nap, then wake up and go to the supermarket, laundry, bank whatever, make dinner."

Ms. Friedman's aging brand of feminism, rooted as it is in the anxieties of the upper-middle-class '60s housewife, speaks neither to nor for young women of today.

Maggie Gallagher writes a syndicated column for Universal Press. Her latest book, "The Abolition of Marriage: How We Lost the Right to a Lasting Love," is being published this month by Regnery Press.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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