In feminists' wake, a new revolution

April 11, 2002|By Louise Branson

VIENNA, Va. -- Ms. magazine, the bible of feminism, just celebrated its 30th anniversary by putting 60-something founder Gloria Steinem on the cover. At the same time, Fox News legal superstar Greta Van Susteren has been at the center of a hyperventilating debate about her Barbie-doll plastic surgery, even provoking a joke line at the Oscars.

Are the two linked? You bet.

With Ms. Steinem on its cover, Ms. essentially rejected what Ms. Van Susteren's plastic surgery endorsed: that brains and articulateness are not enough. But the more mainstream Vogues and Elles, with their young-looking, airbrushed models and celebrities, crowded out Ms. on the newsstands.

So, just where did militant, 1970s feminism get us? Answer: a long way, and into a place that is new and confusing.

How much simpler it all was 30 years ago when women knew what to fight for. They burned bras and demanded equality everywhere from law and medical schools to sports fields.

Now it's hard to miss the ambivalence most women feel about their lives. Oh, sure, they can get into Harvard Law School or aim to play for the Washington Mystics basketball team (thank you, Title IX). But a new, insistent question is rising: at what cost?

There is a "third wave" movement of women in their teens and 20s, for example, who say they want to break with what they see as the kind of feminism that does not allow them to appreciate men and be friends with them. For the first time in decades, the number of women staying home to take care of children is rising.

And if Ms. Van Susteren seemed to reject feminist goals, she argues that she didn't. Her plastic surgery, she said, was not to satisfy bosses or grab more ratings as she switched from CNN to Fox. She just wanted to do it for herself. Is there anything wrong with that?

At the root of much of the ambivalence is a growing realization that it is impossible, after all, to have it all, and that women who have soaring careers often pay a high personal price.

Listen to one 20-something woman who has great career prospects:

"Among my friends, a lot of them are getting advanced degrees to prove they can do it, but their intention is to get married, have children and stay at home," she said. "I feel that there must be another solution, but I can't find it." Anne Crittenden, highly acclaimed author of The Price of Motherhood, makes similar points.

Still, a different kind of revolution may now be under way, one in which an array of choices is possible and individuals, women and men, make them a la carte. That may seem like a fanciful notion, but in a changing world of high tech and high job mobility, it is not out of the question.

There are signs it is already happening in corporate America, long one of the most inhospitable places for women to work. Even today, just 12.5 percent of women occupy the very top executive suites. And twice as many senior women as men leave to start their own businesses.

Corporations are slowly realizing that losing so many top-level women is hurting their bottom line. Besides training costs, women understand better how to market to women, whose economic power is growing. That's why several companies -- such as "Big Five" accounting firm Ernst & Young -- are now introducing enticements and unconventional arrangements and schedules that focus on having a full life outside the office and in, for both women and men.

Cutting-edge training firms such as Strategic Interactions in Virginia say the demand for "emotional intelligence" courses --- emphasizing friendlier offices and happier clients -- is growing. One company, Corporate HOPE, even aims to help women to be "authentic" instead of just trying to fit into a man's world.

So perhaps Gloria Steinem and Greta Van Susteren are not sending conflicting messages after all. Perhaps Ms. Van Susteren is navigating her own way out of the confusion, pushing to create the individual life and values she wants to live by. Subscribing not to feminism but to an emerging 21st century kind of individualism.

Louise Branson is a free-lance journalist and writer who lives in the Washington area.

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