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Woman on a seesaw: the ups and downs of making it.

Hilary Cosell grew up thinking she had her life all figured out. She subscribed to the simple feminist position that success in the workplace equals success in life. Then, after a college degree, an M.A. in journalism, and five years under her belt as a television producer, Cosell became confused. Like a case study from Betty Friedan's The Second Stage, Cosell found that it was not enough to be professionally successful. Pushing 30, Cosell wanted a husband, probably children, and the stability and commitment that a family brings.

Cosell's thesis is that women have somehow been caught seesawing between the professional and personal ends of their lives--it's all of one or all of the other--and are unable to balance in the Middle. Women's lot, as she describes it, sounds quite depressing: single working women are afraid of getting married (for the compromises it will demand in time or energy) and of not getting married (for the "completion" they'll never have). Mothers without jobs are secretly envied for enjoying the richness of family, but at the same time are sneered at for having dropped out of the big-time world of professions, presumably because they couldn't cut it there. Even the superwoman with both families and careers are really "stuporwomen," argues Cosell. They're frazzled, wrung out, and unable to enjoy the fruits of either kind of labor.

In large part, Cosell correctly blames feminism for leaving women in these binds. The most important fact about the women's movement, of course, is that it has done women a lot of good by offering them opportunities in the professional world they never before dared strive for. But the movement has also done women a lot of bad by endorsing the traditional male idea that work alone means success and that life outside work barely counts.

Cosell may have started out with a good idea--to explore how the imbalance between work and families in women's lives causes joy and anguish, fulfillment and emptiness. But it's a good idea with poor execution: Cosell admits she is confused bout life's many paths. And she writes as if she's just wallowing in the confusion, rather than thinking through the alternatives and offering the reader a new way to think about life. At a minimum, Cosell could have more honestly guided us through the decisive moments of her own life. After all, she did quite her TV job, and she did recently get married. Yet she backs off exploring her own decisions or finding a message for women in general. "Here come the gibberings and the I dunnos; search me; your guess is as good as mine. How-tos are not my forte," she rambles cutely.

Cosell tells us the least interesting things about herself. We read that she was a comfortable middle class liberal, an Easterner, a feminist, a journalist, a New Yorker at heart. But these are boring labels that only give us a caricature. She could be any one of a thousand faces. Cosell teases us along into figuring out whose daughter she is (we can all guess Howard must be her dad), but she won't talk about it. Certainly this must have had a large impact on her life. What is it like? What has it meant to her?

The book's few thoughtful moments come from Cosell's interviewees. From one full-time mother: "I don't believe that being a mother, a nonworking mother, has to be a position of powerlessness and victimization and unimportance.

"If it becomes that, then I think that women are at fault in some way... It means that, once again, women have allowed themselves to be told who they are and who they must be."

Hilary Cosell's book is about ideas that many women and men are thinking about. Unfortunately, the thinking she has done is neither stimulating nor enlightening.
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Author:Fallows, Deborah
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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