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On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream.

After nearly thirty years of the women's movement, as we begin a new decade at the end of the century, there's a tendency to look back and to assess where we are and where we're going-a fairly widespread tendency, judging from the number of books currently doing this. Lillian Rubin's Erotic Wars, Anita Shreve's Women Together, Women A lone and Ruth Sidel's On Her Own are attempts to assess change. All agree that a revolution has taken place and that the texture of women's lives has been radically altered by the women's movement. Each focuses on a different aspect of this revolution-Rubin on the sexual revolution, Shreve on the legacy of consciousness raising, Sidel on young women's expectations. All use analyses of interviews, a form with which Betty Friedan has had spectacular success, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), and a form which has obvious advantages as a means of taking the measure of a time-though it also has some disadvantages, being only as representative as the sampling of those interviewed.

Lillian Rubin argues that, contrary to the many magazine and television stories recently proclaiming the death of the sexual revolution and the return of sexual conservatism, "change of almost staggering proportions" has occurred "in relations between men and women." A "transformation in sexual norms ... has been integrated into the culture, consolidated into sexual behavior and internalized by the majority of adults, as well as teenagers, in the country." Given that her sampling consists of 375 people who were interviewed and 600 who returned questionnaires-all urban, heterosexual and mostly white-such claims seem a bit global; but within this limitation, she demonstrates real, if uneven, change.

One of the things that emerges is that change occurs erratically. Young people are experimenting earlier and the sexual revolution has allowed girls more freedom of sexual expression than they've ever had, but the double standard persists in that girls are still more readily condemned for promiscuity than boys are. Besides, though young women are more sexually sophisticated, they are nevertheless-judging from the alarmingly high incidence of teenage pregnancy in this country-reluctant to use birth control. It's not that they don't know about birth control; it's more a matter of the persistence of a sexual conservatism that stigmatizes them for showing too much knowledge about sex.

Rubin announces her subject as a "story ... of sex, gender and power and of how these have interacted with each other from the beginning of the sexual revolution until the present.... It is a tale of change ... not just in response to the sexual revolution, but also to the gender revolution, which followed so closely on its heels." A book that really delivered on this would be valuable indeed, for the sexual revolution and gender revolution are deeply and complexly intertwined. However, Rubin does not get around to the gender revolution until midway through the book, too late for it to figure meaningfully in her discussion of the sexual revolution; when she does get to it, she never quite specifies what it is. By "gender revolution" she seems to mean the changes effected by the women's movement, but since these are by no means self-evident or agreed upon, they require more explanation. Rubin takes as a given what needs to be made a subject of inquiry. As a matter of fact, the causes of the sexual revolution are also somewhat unaccounted for. She offers bits and pieces of historical information-the entry of women into the work force, "escalating divorce rates," "the discontent so many women experienced with the confines of the feminine mystique' -but again, this is late in the book, almost an afterthought. It comes too late to add to our understanding of the sexual revolution, where it came from, what happened in the 1960s to bring it on full force and how it interacted with feminism. The effect is to isolate the sexual revolution from the social and historical conditions that produced it.

Perhaps because the sexual revolution is insufficiently contextualized, the issue of power-announced by her title, Erotic Wars, and potentially one of the most fascinating aspects of her study-is insufficiently theorized. "The relationship between sex and power is a difficult one for most people to deal with directly," and "the bedroom is one of the primary places where men and women meet as intimate adversaries"' Rubin rightly declares; but she herself does not deal convincingly with this relationship. I did find the voices convincing, angry testimonials to the power struggles between men and women: "'When I come home from work ... and the house looks like a disaster area, I could kill him, not screw him' "; " These guys are oh so liberated, but it's all words, nothing but words "'I hate to say it, but women's lib has really screwed things.' " But there's a temptation, in relying on interviews, to substitute anecdote for analysis, and Rubin leaves unexplored many questions raised by her material. Is the erotic inevitably linked to power in our culture? Are people's notions of the erotic changing as the balance of power shifts-assuming that the balance is indeed shifting? Does the persistence of traditional values and attitudes beneath a rhetoric of change cast light on issues of power? Does the apparent increase in violence against women represent a response to shifting balances of power?

Rubin's study raises fascinating questions-about the relation of sex to power, the erratic movements of change, the discrepancies between real and rhetorical change- but they are questions requiring more care and subtlety than she brings to them. Despite her stated intentions, she does not relate the sexual revolution to the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s or illuminate the relation of sex to power. Since she provides scant historical and theoretical scaffolding, what we get is a series of occasionally interesting insights with little sense of how they fit together. Rather than delving into the murkier aspects of the erotics of power, Rubin concludes her study with the comfortable assurance that the sexual revolution is in a mature stage of consolidation:' that we are taking "a thoughtful pause ... to reorder our relationships . . . in ways that will bring more lasting satisfaction to us all"-a conclusion I found somewhat puzzling, in that it seems to take comfort from the sexual conservatism that she has challenged all along. It seems to follow more from the desire to wrap things up than from a reading of current events, such as the apparent increase in violence against women and the virulence of reaction against feminism.

Anita Shreve's book-based on interviews with sixty-five women who were active in consciousness-raising groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s-offers fascinating information about consciousness-raising groups: how they started, how they worked, how they changed women's lives. "In the early years of the 1970s . . . a phenomenon known as consciousness-raising swept the country" like a great blaze:' Shreve evokes that "moment of vision" "when a woman was . . . transformed ... from apolitical to feminist"' the "click" that initiated the heady process of making connections, the progress from isolation to commonality and confidence. " It was my rebirth as a human being," a "revolution in our lives"; "it changed my life:' Shreve tends, however, to attribute a bit much to consciousness raising, describing it as though it had a life of its own rather than as one of several factors-the entry of vast numbers of women into the work force, the civil rights and antiwar movements, the sexual revolution, the spirit of dissent and revolt-that brought about change at the time.

A decade and a half after the fact, women recall their time spent in consciousness-raising groups with a passion and nostalgia that is often surprising"; the voices in this book convey that passion and nostalgia. An almost elegiac quality comes through-the sense of loss of a vision, the betrayal of a promise, the pain and confusion of women wondering what went wrong. The "most significant and alarming" discovery is that "women are again isolated;' ironically, Shreve suggests, "by many of the opportunities made possible by their participation in CR": "'I don't exercise. I don't read

books. I don't watch TV. . . . I don't see women friends. . . . I work and I'm a mother. That's it."' "'I don't have friends anymore.... I have no one really to talk to.' "

These voices reveal that much has remained the same. Though women have more self-esteem and independence and awareness of women's issues and greater ease in talking about themselves, they are still dealing with the same old problems, and with some new, unforeseen ones, like inadequate child care and competition with other women. Many are struggling with unequal partnerships-and it is in relationships with men that they feel they've made the least progress: "Show me a marriage of truly equal partners ... and I'm gonna go over and take a picture of it."' Many feel exhausted from juggling work and family and from conforming to standards of appearance that remain as time-consuming, costly and constraining as styles in the 1950s. In their voices one hears the guilt and self-blame that practically come with the territory of being a woman today-"'I'm always torn; I feel like I never give anyone or anything enough.'"

Notwithstanding these problems and the role the women's movement once played in their lives, most of the women interviewed no longer identify with feminism. In fact, many of their complaints implicitly target the women's movement. Some complain of becoming too much like men, of having to compete with men, of having to compete with other women; some wonder if areas of life pertaining to women-homemaking and motherhood-haven't been undervalued by the women's movement. But what I found doubly disturbing is that Shreve has the same tendency to blame feminism: Again and again her terms and formulations suggest that the problems of women are "the legacy of consciousness-raising." "One of the ironies of the Women's Movement " she says, "is that in preparing the ground for greater career opportunities for women, it sowed the seeds of its own demise.... Women who combine career and family life simply don't have any time left to devote to feminism or CR or activist issues." About child care, she says, "It's as if the Women's Movement had built a dazzlingly beautiful house and had forgotten to think about the foundation:' But does she really want to name "career opportunities" as the problem, and not, rather, the reluctance of government and corporations to provide the supports that would enable women to take advantage of those opportunities? And is the women's movement really to blame for inadequate child care, when child care is a cause with which it has always been allied? Shreve describes women's exploitation of women as the most troubling legacy of the women's movement. "`Supposedly liberated, progressive feminist women [exploit] other women: " delegating their housework and child care to them. " It's a nasty kind of hypocrisy... It's as though the fruits of liberation were only for a certain class of women."' But are women and the women's movement really at fault for the devaluation of the caring professions generally-nurses, welfare and hospital workers, teachers-all of which have been fighting for their lives against government cutbacks in the last decade? Attributing too much power to consciousness raising, Shreve also attributes too much negative power to it and ends up blaming feminism for the faults of the system feminism is trying to change.

Shreve considers the paradox: Women speak of consciousness raising as changing their lives yet disassociate themselves from feminism today. She asks, How is it that consciousness raising can have meant so much to them then and so little to them now? Her answer, in part, is that, "during a decade in which radical rhetoric and social activism had been generally unwelcome and largely absent, women had been shaping and molding their own personalized visions of feminism to suit their private realities"-"We took what we learned and invested it in our personal lives' -so that now even those who identify with feminism define it as "the very personal interaction each feminist woman has with her world." "Implied, but not always stated in their definitions, is a sense ... of operating in a vacuum." Shreve says that "feminism today ... is very much in the eye of the beholder." But I wonder, really, whether such "personalized" definitions are really about feminism.

The conclusion I'd draw is different from Shreve's, though it is implied by her material. It's the same lesson taught by earlier women's liberation movements-that personalized solutions that do not challenge the structures and institutions of society are ineffective; that as long as feminism is defined as individual self-improvement-"having it all"-a few women will be let in and bought off, that feminism is not in the eye of the beholder but rather in collective identification and effort, and it must be so if it is to have any force in society. Shreve's book traces career feminism to its inevitable dead end, and her plea for "a new, more empowered, collective response to the problems that confront women today" is appropriate, but there is a way in which she does not imagine what a "collective response" might be. Even in the " Suggested Topics for Consciousness-Raising" with which she concludes-and I like her suggestion that women come together in consciousness-raising groups again, though I don't hold the high hopes for it that she does-working for social change is mentioned as a kind of optional extra, when it's so obvious from her evidence that it was precisely the turning from "social activism" that left women high and dry. Shreve's analysis seems to be working in the vacuum she describes, and, ungrounded in a clearer sense of the social and historical processes of which consciousness raising is a part, it targets the wrong enemy and fails to insist on the meaning her material urges.

The question Ruth Sidel addresses is, How have young women been affected by a quarter-century of feminism, in terms of their expectations about work, relationships, their futures? What she discovered, through 125 interviews, was that though young women have got the message that they cannot depend on a man, they've bought into another kind of illusion, a kind of recycled American Dream-a dream of affluence and upward mobility imagined in terms "straight out of Dallas, Dynasty, or L.A. Law." In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary-the increasing numbers of poor and homeless, particularly women and children, the need for two wage earners in the family, the decline of the middle class-young women believe in their power to make it on their own.

What is striking is "the narrowness of their image of success, the uniformity of their dreams. The affluent life as symbolized by the fancy car, the 'house on a hill'' the Bloomingdale's wardrobe,'... was described yearningly time and time again. As if programmed, the same words, the same dreams tumbled out of the mouths of young women from very different backgrounds and life experiences. Success was seen, overwhelmingly, in terms of what they would be able to purchase, what kind of `life-style' they would have." Few spoke of being journalists, of teaching or caring for the sick or helping the poor or making a difference in the lives of others. Few spoke of issues such as day care, parental leave or the need to encourage society to provide supports for them and their children; they assumed that they as individuals would have sole responsibility and sufficient resources for those things.

If one combines their desire for affluence with their realization that they're going to have to provide for themselves, it becomes obvious that young women are going to have to have considerable earning power in order to achieve the life style of their dreams. But Sidel demonstrates that the work lives most women can expect bear little resemblance to their fantasies. In the past twenty years women have entered the work force and professions in astonishing numbers. The media present the image of women working in glamorous professions, but the reality is that most women work and will continue to work in low-status, low-income, dead-end jobs-in service, sales and clerical positions. Black and Latina women, crowded into a few sex-segregated occupations, work in the least desirable, lowest-paying jobs. Women are increasingly vulnerable to downward mobility, and minority women especially so. Even for those women who do make it into the professions, work life is likely to differ from that of men. In medicine, law, academia and business, women are not rising to the top. The workplace remains unyielding to their needs, and many are being forced to choose between a successful professional career and a personal life.

So where do young women get this dream of the good life? Its persistence is a lesson in the power of ideology-and Sidel's analysis of women's magazines and television shows how ideology is constructed and the purposes it serves. Women's magazines like Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Glamour and Cosmopolitan promulgate the message that "changing our lives is fundamentally within our control "that women can," if they work hard enough, exercise long enough, eat correctly, and dress fashionably, achieve their dreams:' Television reinforces a belief in individualism by the very form of the weekly program: The need for a wrap-up imposes "simplistic solutions that are ... within the control of the individual. Seldom are problems depicted as larger than the individual's or the family unit's capacity for coping; rarely are problems depicted as systemic, originating in the very structure of society." Television programs also create the impression that looks count more than brains and that one can magically jump from dating and shopping to a well-paid professional career, with no academic interests or vocational skills. Magazines and television promote a fantasy of a white, upper-middle-class good fife that has little relevance to most women, because upscale sells. It sells products, but it also sells faith in the American way of life, with disastrous consequences-for if the system is functioning as advertised, we have only ourselves to blame for our failures.

Sidel analyzes the renewed belief that success is there for the taking as resulting from a convergence of several strands of American thought: the American Dream with its promise of upward mobility; the ideology of the Reagan years, which stressed individualism and undermined belief in communitarian ideals or efforts; and the women's movement, with its promise of entitlement. She notes the sad irony of feminism's part in this, for it certainly did not set out to bolster the ideology of individualism and the American Dream but rather encouraged women to see themselves as participating in a collective struggle for equality. However, Sidel's analysis is different from Shreve's faulting of feminism for the failures of the system it sought to change. Sidel acknowledges that "movements do not exist in a vacuum," that the women's movement has existed "within an individualistic, hierarchical system committed for the most part to private enterprise and profit making"-a system that has powerful tendencies to reduce feminism to individual success (as is abundantly clear from Shreve's interviews). What I admire about Sidel's book is this sort of contextualization. Her comprehensiveness is borne out by her method, which brings to bear a variety of factors, not only television and women's magazines but fiction and film. Rather than isolating the phenomena she describes and assigning excessive praise or blame to any single cause, her analysis takes into account the complex of forces that create culture. Not coincidentally, the sampling of women interviewed in this study is more diverse in terms of class, race, ethnic background and geography than Rubin's or Shreve's.

Sidel considers the irony that young women, a group outside the cultural mainstream in age and gender, have internalized that most mainstream of ideologies, the American Dream, with its belief in the power of the individual to shape her own destiny. Even for most men, the American Dream was a myth. Men did not make it alone-they had women. "They still don't do it alone. How can women do it alone ... when they earn 65 percent of what men earn, when housing is virtually unaffordable for millions of families, when child care is scarce and all too often second-rate or worse? And where did they get the notion that they should be able to make it alone? " It is a false and pernicious dream that has deluded women into believing that "having it all" is within their reach if they grasp hard enough-a dream which, offering the illusion of choice, prevents real choice by impeding the sort of analysis that might lead to action.

In her last chapter, "Toward a More Caring Society," Sidel offers suggestions for reorganizing society so that men and women can play an equal part in the public sphere and children will have the care they need-suggestions that amount to a reordering of our priorities and a reallocation of resources. The workplace must be reorganized to meet the needs of employees, not just the profits of employers; the professions cannot continue to function "as if there were a full-time wife and mother at home.... Alternative paths to partnerships, professorships, and promotion must be developed" that will neither leave women at the bottom of the career ladder nor force them to choose between personal and professional lives. Market forces cannot be permitted free rein-the education of the young, health care, child care, community life are more important than profit:' and the caring professions must be valued and rewarded. Sidel ends with an impassioned plea for a new American Dream, for a collective, humanitarian effort that will include the many who are currently excluded from the system.

Altogether, these books do not paint a particularly cheerful picture. As disturbing as the inequities they attest to is the evidence that the older generation has forgotten what it once knew about collective thinking and that the younger generation has bought into the ideology of individualism and materialism in a society hostile to its real interests. Rubin and Shreve demonstrate the difficulty of imagining a way out-the difficulty of seeing things whole, the tendency to privatize and fall back on conventional formulations. Sidel does imagine collectively, and her book offers a moving, persuasive plea for an alternative vision and effort.

Gayle Greene is professor of English and women's studies at Scripps College. Her book, Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition, will be published by Indiana University Press in the fall.


Other recent books on the women's movement include Arlie Hochschild's The Second Shift; Wendy Kaminer's A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality; Lyn Segal's Is the Future Female?: Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism; Michelene Wandor's interviews, Once a Feminist: Stories of a Generation; and Suzanne Gordon's Prisoner of Men's Dreams.- Striking Out for a New Feminine Future. Also relevant are fictional retrospectives like Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, Barbara Raskin's Hot Flashes and Anne Roiphe's Lovingkindness.
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Author:Greene, Gayle
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 29, 1991
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