I finally got around to reading Maureen Dowd's teaser "What's a Modern Girl To Do" for her new book.
Having come of age (and come out) at the tail-end of the second wave of the US Feminist movement, I can recognize some of the patterns she presents in her non-pithy, mainly anecdotal, New York Times Magazine splash. Basically she argues that current (young) women find little use for the "tedious" feminists of yore and their antiquated policy goals.
Women in their 20's think old-school feminists looked for equality in all the wrong places, that instead of fighting battles about whether women should pay for dinner or wear padded bras they should have focused only on big economic issues.
Now, instead of "equal pay for equal work", there's talk about "girl money."
A friend of mine in her 30's says it is a term she hears bandied about the New York dating scene. She also notes a shift in the type of gifts given at wedding showers around town, a reversion to 50's-style offerings: soup ladles and those frilly little aprons from Anthropologie and vintage stores are being unwrapped along with see-through nighties and push-up bras.
"What I find most disturbing about the 1950's-ification and retrogression of women's lives is that it has seeped into the corporate and social culture, where it can do real damage," she complains. "Otherwise intelligent men, who know women still earn less than men as a rule, say things like: 'I'll get the check. You only have girl money.'"
Dowd claims that success and family/kid are incompatible for women. Citing no legitimate academic studies, she presents evidence that sucessful women of a certain age forwent marriage and family for career.
Furthermore in relation to my recent post about name changes, She cites evidence (credible at that) of a decline in the number of women who keep their own name upon marriage:
A Harvard economics professor, Claudia Goldin, did a study last year that found that 44 percent of women in the Harvard class of 1980 who married within 10 years of graduation kept their birth names, while in the class of '90 it was down to 32 percent. In 1990, 23 percent of college-educated women kept their own names after marriage, while a decade later the number had fallen to 17 percent.
Time magazine reported that an informal poll in the spring of 2005 by the Knot, a wedding Web site, showed similar results: 81 percent of respondents took their spouse's last name, an increase from 71 percent in 2000. The number of women with hyphenated surnames fell from 21 percent to 8 percent.
"It's a return to romance, a desire to make marriage work," Goldin told one interviewer, adding that young women might feel that by keeping their own names they were aligning themselves with tedious old-fashioned feminists, and this might be a turnoff to them.
The professor, who married in 1979 and kept her name, undertook the study after her niece, a lawyer, changed hers. "She felt that her generation of women didn't have to do the same things mine did, because of what we had already achieved," Goldin told Time.
In the end, although she seems to side with these Carrie Bradshaw types (although, the comparison to me was odd. Didn't Sarah Jessica Parker lose her Gap contract for being "too old"? How can Dowd lump her character in with the 20 somethings carrying the new anti-feminist torch she's describing?), she doesn't endorse it unconditionally. She wonders about the future:
Having boomeranged once, will women do it again in a couple of decades? If we flash forward to 2030, will we see all those young women who thought trying to Have It All was a pointless slog, now middle-aged and stranded in suburbia, popping Ativan, struggling with rebellious teenagers, deserted by husbands for younger babes, unable to get back into a work force they never tried to be part of?
It's easy to picture a surreally familiar scene when women realize they bought into a raw deal and old trap. With no power or money or independence, they'll be mere domestic robots, lasering their legs and waxing their floors -- or vice versa -- and desperately seeking a new Betty Friedan.
Katha Pollitt's response is predictably articulate and smart:
Maureen Dowd doesn't read my column. I know this because in her new book, Are Men Necessary?, she uncritically cites virtually every fear-mongering, backlash-promoting study, survey, article and book I've debunked in this space. She falls for that 1986 Harvard-Yale study comparing women's chances of marrying after 40 to the likelihood of being killed by a terrorist, and for the half-baked theories of Sylvia Ann Hewlett (ambitious women stay single or childless), Lisa Belkin (mothers give up their careers), Louise Story (even undergraduates understand this now) and other purveyors of the view that achievement and romance/family are incompatible for women. To be fair, Dowd apparently doesn't read Susan Faludi or Susan Douglas either, or The American Prospect, Slate, Salon or even The New Republic, home of her friend Leon Wieseltier, much thanked for editorial help in her introduction--all of which have published persuasive critiques of these and other contributions to backlash lit. Still, it hurts. I read her, after all. We all do.
She admits that some of Dowd's unscientific presentation is, in fact, true:
And it's hard to deny that there's a reality out there of which she gives a slapdash, cartoon, Style-section version. There is some truth to Dowd's horrified depiction of the hypersexualized culture of "hotness."
Just that its not the whole story.
By many measures young women today are far more independent than we were--more likely to finish college and have advanced degrees, to work in formerly all-male occupations, to have (or acknowledge having) lesbian sex, to refuse to suffer in silence rape, harassment, abuse. If we're going by anecdotal evidence from our circles of friends, I know young women who've made the finals in the Intel science contest and worked on newspapers in Africa, who've had sperm-bank babies alone or with other women, who play rugby, make movies, write feminist/political/literary blogs, organize unions, raise money for poor women's abortions.
I'm amazed, actually, that feminism is still around, given the press it gets.
While Dowd might be a hot fifty-something, Pollitt rocks.