Women Re Women

WOMEN? This is not a subject one can approach with confidence. Generalization is unconvincing when it is not worse—absurd. All that one observes and feels is an assertion; the instances contradict and certainty is confounded by the vastness of the world’s female population. When we look at our customs and traditions, it is hard to decide, with women, whether custom follows nature or is merely accidental, sanctioned by time and expediency rather than necessity. Exploitation, or a sensible acquiescence?

What follows here are merely notes and suggestions. Two notions from books recently published stir my mind to speculation. First: Bernadette Devlin, the twenty-two-year-old Member of Parliament from Northern Ireland, describes her father in The Price of My Soul. “If my mother had been pretty busy during the day, he would cook the supper—and we preferred it when he did, for he served us weird things. . . . He thought nothing of doing the housework on a Saturday if he wasn’t working, and was totally unashamed of hanging washing on the line—a thing most men in Cookstown wouldn’t be seen dead doing. . . . He was quite happy going shopping or pushing the baby’s pram or buying clothes for the children.”

In Erik Erikson’s book on Gandhi, he speaks of that part of Gandhi’s nature that loved to nurse and to mother, that made the spinning wheel an emblem of his revolutionary plans for India. Gandhi, the liberator of a whole continent, saw in simple, communal living a chance for salvation; he saw his own loincloth and naked legs as a serious comment upon the follies of society, and practiced, as a way of spiritual truth, “an abandonment of malehood.” This was prophetic, “for in a mechanized future the relative devaluation of the martial model of masculinity may well lead to a freer mutual identification of the two sexes.”

One of the most interesting things in the current talk about women’s “liberation”—the new term for “emancipation”—is that it bases itself upon the possibility of a profound change in the role of men, in the way men see themselves, and in the surrender of the more rough and dominating modes of machismo. And thus, Mr. Devlin hanging out the wash is perhaps to be thought of, by some at least, as a heroic man, courageous enough to free himself in the interest of family happiness from the bondage of prerogative and custom, from a useless assertiveness. And Gandhi, bizarre and gifted with a natural flair for symbolic behavior, surrendering privacy and property and adornment in order to discover possible ways to live in the modern world, would seem, among young people, closer to some of their feelings than their own parents, with their acquisitive manliness.

Emancipation, liberation—most women are squeamish about “feminism” and talk of “rights” and are quick to dissociate their ambitions and discontents from anything that hints of the organizational, of planned struggle, of insistence and determination. Even women scarred by bitterness and anger are afraid to be thought insufficiently feminine, as if this were a quality that could be measured like body weight. Of course, one is feminine or masculine by virtue of genes, and all else is human variation and circumstance and temperament.

How difficult it is to speak of the present. It is impossible to be alive without feeling that important changes in behavior and social sanction are going on everywhere. How deep the change will go we do not know. No doubt, when one goes back home, to the mythical “middle America,” away from the cities and the universities, one may expect to find that the more ancient and respectable forms of breakdown still hold: divorce, alcoholism, illness, failure, infidelity. Wishes and dreams are still familiar: appliances, cars, yearnings to move yet a little more securely into the social structure of regard and money. How is one to judge the natural persistence of the more usual forms against the meaning of hippie culture, of the flight of groups of young persons to the wood stove and well water, to poverty and plainness, to contempt for accumulation, the demotion of fidelity and the elevation of equality among the sexes, the contempt for jealousy and ambition? Is this merely a little sect or cult or does its message float on the air, subtly changing the atmosphere? Of course, the choice of style here is a privilege. In most of the world, in the world of the struggling, starving, laboring masses, style is a fate.

In the film Alice’s Restaurant a somewhat older man, very eager to swing with the young, nevertheless cannot help acting out the peculiarities of his own generation. When he feels jealous of his wife, his instinct is to get into a fight with the other man. And, naturally, he is more than a little drunk as he asserts his right to protect his ego with his fists.

Clothes: the masculine turn in women’s dress does not offend nearly so much as the feminine aspects of certain young men’s fashions. To some, long hair and beads are abhorrent; the cuffed, man-tailored pantsuit for girls is simply disliked when it is not approved. The violent resentment of the long-haired young man is a measure of the greater importance accorded to the behavior of boys, the threat their swerving from the traditional paths poses for all of society. The masculine role is not a preference; upon it almost every institution of society depends: government, business, medicine, law, police, defense, heavy labor, sports. Or so it is still believed by the older generation.

I feel in my bones that the clothes of the young are rich in signification, that long hair is serious, that more is involved than restlessness and spending money. I do not know what is involved. For it is all often like some new medicine whose side effects cannot be measured for a number of years. Will middle age bring these young people “back home”—that is, back to the more or less stable family unit, with all the responsibilities and permanent obligations that has meant in the past? How will they support themselves? What will they want for their children?

Children—here I must return to speculation about women. Children naturally pose the greatest hindrance to drastic changes in the role of women. They instantaneously create that incredibly complex network of circumstance and demand, love and bondage known to us through the conventions of bourgeois life. Equality dies, fidelity is a convenience to keep the household together, work is a necessity, continuity is the measure of love. In this world, as in the world of women generally, the problems are always particular, daily, mundane.

Today, young babies crawl about in the nude, ride papooselike on the backs of mother and father and friend. They are not the occasion for the assumption of the usual burdens, but instead take their part in the free and casual community. Love comes from all; oatmeal may be spooned by a friend, as a delight, not a duty. It is felt that many of the questions I would ask are irrelevant. I do not know what the questions are and how they will be answered by time. They would appear to have to do with continuity and responsibility, and it is on the challenge of these conceptions that so much of the youth revolt rests. The ability to manage the maintenance and rearing of children into adulthood will be the severest test of the new life style among young men and women.

The housework: I have read an article by a brilliant young woman, Ellen Willis,* who tells of her resentment over doing the housework just because she is female. Many girls of advanced opinions take the question of the dishes quite seriously, and, indeed, it is from the humble moments that the great hours of existence are formed. Many young men seem emancipated enough to consider it reasonable to share in the housekeeping, although this work, which is of its nature routine, is more likely to be accepted during a sort of revolutionary elation, lived on the barricades of challenge, than during normal times. But for the moment, the girls do not demand a fatherly, money-making, everlasting commitment from the boys, and they in turn do not expect that she, like a pigeon trained to its route, will gladly find her way to the stove and sink, day after day. In the part of the youth that resists war and conformity, there is also a questioning of the traditional role of women: a reawakening of the dormant “rights” movement of our grandmothers. Perhaps these young people still live in a world in which home life is not very important, a world still close to that of students, and graduate students, adults more or less without privacy and possessions. Possessions are a threat to the soul and a solace to the senses; doing without them can also be one of those invigorating resolutions, like dieting, that give freedom and purpose. A “commune” in the country or in a slum can impose a backbreaking domesticity because of the absence of accommodations—no heat, no furniture, everything unexpectedly hard and time-consuming. It has in it the aspect of the monastery, and it is a natural part of the religious content of the youth movement—a sort of Reformation, as Paul Goodman sees it.

In the next decades, the right to have children will be seriously questioned by intelligent women. The distinguished and humane biologist Dr. Jean Dubos speaks of the alarming overfecundity of the American suburbs, of the complacency of the well-to-do in reproducing in a bitterly overpopulated world. With smaller families, or often no families, the changes in the day-to-day life of women will be beyond our imagining. Appallingly painful adjustments face us in every aspect of our lives, and even if we practice sensible austerity—a highly unlikely possibility—modern history does not offer much to be hopeful about. Miracles have a way of leading to some new and unexpected liabilities. The constancy of the miracles of technology can only make a sensible person wish to turn them aside for a moment. They do not seem to have been paying off in happiness, leisure, and health. But worst of all, there is something genuinely frightening in beginning to question all those benefits so many generations longed for and so many talents labored to produce. Surprises are always around the corner—they are not the results we were imagining.

Men dressing like girls and girls in bell-bottoms and pea jackets, like sailors—there must be some wish in all of this for a melding on some level, for equality, for release from the foolish traditions of masculinity and the devitalizing absurdities of femininity. However, do they really, the boys and girls, stand together against the older generation? If there is a war between the old and the young, as some believe, where will the girls stand, finally? For mostly this war is against the young men; the older generation considers the girls to be followers, not leaders. And this is true, in the main. Still, mothers, even middle-aged ones, are girls, and where will they stand; where, indeed, do they stand?

The changes that are coming about in the sensibilities and the existence of young girls have to do with the enormous alterations in the minds of the young men. This is not because of the inferiority of girls, but merely that the fantastic and improbable challenges to the young men are of such a fundamental nature that they include automatic changes in the status and customs of women. Work, marriage, war, moneymaking, ambition, education, authority. A young man who challenges the authority of the dean, the master sergeant, the boss, will not expect to be in authority over his wife. For authority is an essence: you give it and you take it.

But there are oddities and curious appendages: women are demanding equal pay in a world in which work itself, as a fact and as almost a sacrament, is losing its authority. So you are demanding equal rights in something that is itself losing ground as a fulfillment. Society does not need the amount of work it once did. That is, according to the critic Leslie Fiedler, the meaning of long hair. It means that you do not fulfill yourself by work. That the young man, beginning in life, is not living and dressing to create an image of himself that will please and reassure some future employer; his foot is not on the first rung of the ladder. He seeks instead authenticity, self-fulfillment, community. In New York, we hear of those young men with long hair, far-out clothes, who work the computers, make their money, go home to live as they please. There is no doubt that somehow, some way, society, authority, will manage to use whatever skills are necessary, and it will swallow its wish to have its machines operated by authority-loving young men in Dacron suits, white shirts, subdued ties, and polished shoes.

What seems to be ahead is that the women will have the new problems created by the new problems men have. Perhaps doing without the sanctity of work will be one of them. Many persons overburdened with work will find this infuriating. Many who have suffered to raise their children and who suffered as children find it hard to give up authority and distressing to know how their children will grow into decent people without curbs on anarchic impulses, without the treasure of experience. These are real questions. We have seen almost every ideal we have worked for tainted in its realization —improved health leading to overpopulation, the sufferings of the aged: the pollution and destruction of nature to give services to mankind, the wars that lay hidden in the last peace, and so on forever. Only the sentimental would not worry about the snakes in the paradise of the young—the tortures of nudity, the emptiness of leisure, the tyranny of the love of youth since all must age.

There is nothing more beautiful than a free spirit. This freedom is always a special gift, like beauty or talent; it falls like grace and seems to combine sweetness or intention with a hard, spontaneous courage. It has never been the aim of any society to produce these beings, although the corrupt are constantly pretending otherwise. A free man or woman is a rare thing. The world does not seem to be getting better or happier or wiser. If the differences between men and women are of less interest than their basic humanity, their nature as people, what can we wish for ourselves? The rising to the surface, in men, of the submerged maternal, or the opening up for the women of the hidden ability to be masterful? One thing seems certain—mastery without care, without the love of nurturing and preserving, is suicide.


* Mademoiselle, September 1969.

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