Feminism critic wants today's women to follow in our mother's footsteps

February 23, 1999|By Susan Reimer

DANIELLE Crittenden is just shy of 40. She is married to a successful journalist from a wealthy Canadian family who doesn't do anywhere near half the chores in their Washington home.

She has two children, a girl, 7, and a boy, 5, for whom she is available when they are awake or home from school. She had a part-time sitter until the second child was born, then hired a full-time au pair. When both children entered school, she down-sized to just a housekeeper. But she says she makes dinner for her family almost every night.

Danielle Crittenden is also the founding editor of the Women's Quarterly, a successful conservative newsletter said to be on the cutting edge of social thinking. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Ladies Home Journal. She is also a regular television and radio commentator and guest.

And now Crittenden is the author of a book: "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman," in which she writes that feminism has failed her generation of women because it promised they could have it all and then didn't deliver.

I don't approve of the current microscopic inspection of personal lives for every tiny inconsistency with public statements -- my own would wilt under such scrutiny -- but happiness doesn't seem to have eluded Crittenden, who appears to have landed in feminism's have-it-all Valhalla.

But it is not her happiness she is writing about.

She crunched polling results, conducted extensive interviews and scrutinized the spectrum of women's magazines and concluded that feminism and the sexual revolution it spawned have left women bereft.

She writes that instead of freeing women for more choices, feminism condemns women to a fresh set of chains: to make love to a man and not care if you never see him again; to have a career and financial independence that ensures that any man who loves you can leave you without worrying whether you will starve; and to a 40-something empty space inside that only a baby can fill but which creeping infertility and a shortage of father-types thwarts.

If that were me, I'd be unhappy, too.

Crittenden's book is the latest salvo launched against feminism in this decade. No less than Time magazine declared feminism dead in 1989, when it said women who had tried to have it all had now simply had it, and again last summer, when Time declared feminism still dead, or dead again, because it had deteriorated into a discussion of libido and, anyway, its matriarchs had sold the movement out by forgiving President Clinton for his callous dalliance with a young girl as quid pro quo for a bunch of female appointments.

In Crittenden's book, which has drawn a great deal of attention, she writes that young women do not identify themselves as feminists because something about the word conjures bra-burning and man-hating. But she writes that these same women express a devotion to work or career and a fear that marriage and motherhood will rob them of their identity and self-worth.

She writes that women combining work and family feel like they are doing neither job well, and live the same kind of "spiritually empty lives" that drove their suburban mothers to cocktails and Valium. The only difference is that we are spiritually empty while rushing madly between work and home.

She says the same things our mothers said to us: That if you give away the milk, no man will buy the cow. And that our financial independence only encourages the natural inclination in men to move on when they are bored. And that feminism has driven out of our hearts the one impulse that makes the human family work: an selfless devotion to the needs of others.

Crittenden is probing a wound in all of us. Women, not just feminists, have always wanted romantic love, enduring companionship, children and meaningful work, and we still haven't figured out a way to make it all fit.

Feminism did not create these longings in us, but it made it possible for us to get closer to their satisfaction. Because we have not succeeded in meshing all the gears is not the fault of the Betty Friedans and Gloria Steinems who first told us these yearnings were not wrong or bad, that we should strive for them and that men and governments should not deny us the opportunities to do so.

Crittenden writes that, in trying too hard to be the same as men we deny something essential, perhaps divine, inside of us. But we ground-zero feminists did not ask to be the same as men and even joked that we would not lower our standards to be so. We wanted the same opportunities as men, the same choices and chances.

Crittenden tells us that the only way to corral men into marriage is to deny them sex until they commit. But that means women must deny themselves the sexual pleasure they have only recently discovered and hope against hope that they are lucky enough to hit on the sexual compatibility that is so important to successful, satisfying marriage.

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