Women's Work

FORTY YEARS AGO, when the second wave of the American feminist movement was young, and its signature phrase, “the personal is political,” was electrifying, many of the movement’s radicals (this reviewer among them) went to war with the age-old conviction that marriage and motherhood were the deepest necessities of every woman’s life. If we looked honestly at what many of us really wanted, as we were doing in the 1970s and ’80s, it was not marriage and motherhood at all; it was rather the freedom to discover for ourselves the lives we might actually want to pursue.

In our pain and anger at having been denied that freedom, we often turned recklessly on these conventional wisdoms. Marriage was rape, we cried, motherhood slavery. No equality in love? We’ll do without! What we didn’t understand—and this for years on end—was that between the ardor of our revolutionary rhetoric and the dictates of flesh-and-blood reality lay a no-man’s-land of untested pronouncements. How easy it was for us to declare ourselves “liberated,” how chastening to experience the force of contradictory feeling that undermined these defiant simplicities. As we moved inexorably toward the moment when we were bound to see that we were throwing the baby out with the bathwater, nearly every one of us became a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which we were to find ourselves time and again.

It was the fervent hope of 1970s feminists that the generations to follow would take seriously the realization that social change comes not through ideological declarations alone, but through the daily task of grappling with the emotional conflicts those very declarations have made plain. And indeed, over the decades, hundreds of thousands of women have done just that: joined the struggle to understand the conflicts better and, with courage and intelligence, act on that understanding. These are the women who have changed the world by demanding, in undreamt-of numbers, to be let into government, business, sports; medicine and law; science and math; the academy and the corporation—and let the chips fall where they may.

On the other hand, many more hundreds of thousands, exposed to those same 1970s exhortations, have found it difficult to negotiate a territory that has often felt more threatening than promising. In this group are the women who share the desire of the first group for a place in the world yet have repeatedly found themselves succumbing (as of old) to the pressure to place marriage and motherhood at the center of their lives, only to awaken one day (usually, in their forties) wondering how they got to be where they are. The distress of these women has in recent years been leaping off the pages of books and blogs, and it is worth paying attention to, not least because it is a true indicator of how and why social change goes forward at a snail’s pace.

KATE BOLICK is a forty-two-year-old journalist who, since childhood, has harbored a fantasy of living alone and becoming what she calls a “real” writer, but, like many women of her generation, she has found it nearly impossible to pursue that dream. In a memoir, Spinster, she traces the problem to its origins.

“Whom to marry, and when it will happen” are the book’s opening words. “These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

Although raised in a middle-class family in which the mother encouraged the daughter to become all that she could—and don’t forget she loved reading, writing, and being alone—from second grade on Bolick was aware that to be pretty was to gain a foothold in the world, and that to attract the comfort and protection of a good man was how a girl made her way in that world. This, she tells us right off the bat, has been the central complication of her life.

Bolick’s voice is warm and intelligent, and I believe that she has written her memoir out of an honest desire to present as in conflict the longing to experience the actuality of work and solitude and the nagging expectation that she marry. But a tale of conflict is not exactly what she has committed to print. Although Spinster ends on the victorious note of Bolick’s decision to remain single, the book is a strangely one-dimensional recital of her obsessive anxieties over whether to marry, or at least move in with, the next guy on a seemingly endless list of boys and men passing through her life, who illustrate but do not illuminate the dilemma.

Here, in remarkably full descriptions, are the men Bolick has dated, lived with, or hooked up with: In high school there was B, in college W, at her first job R; after that T and J and S; not to mention those who do not even merit a letter. So far as becoming a “real” writer goes, she has written for a variety of publications—mainly the glossies and almost always on what are called women’s issues: marriage, singlehood, house and home—but the work is generally discussed in tandem with the difficulty of the current relationship. Of the joy and terror of actually trying to begin and end with oneself, there is nothing.

As for living alone—the feel of it, the taste, the texture—again nothing. In a Milan Kundera novel a woman leaves a happy marriage because (Kundera’s words) “a seductive voice from afar kept breaking into her conjugal peace: it was the voice of solitude.” Bolick tells us that the sentence moves her, but instead of thinking about it—really thinking about it—she resorts to this platitude: “Why must women always be leaving marriages to find what they want?”

It is only after leaving R (she’s now in her late twenties) that Bolick finds herself living on her own for the first time, and guess what? She finds the condition intolerable. Loneliness is like “a recurrent pain that can subside for months or years at a time,” only to return full force when least expected. Instead of living with the loneliness until it stops overwhelming her and she can learn something from it, Bolick panics; starts drinking, dating, hooking up; becomes an habitué of the trendy singles scene in Manhattan, where she discovers that the women she knows all obsess over men, sex, and marriage; and learns that this is how things are when a man and a woman, newly met, are out to dinner:

It was actually expected that a man would ask, the woman would accept, and the man would pay, no question. . . . In the beginning I insisted on paying my half on principle and out of habit, until I realized that doing so sent the wrong signal, no matter what I said. Apparently paying for dinner was how a man signaled his intention, proving to me—and himself—that he considered this “more” than a hook-up. By accepting his offer I was showing that I understood.

I think these sentences pained me more than any other in the entire book. This, in 2002!

Bolick’s memoir has generated the kind of publicity that persuades the suburban book buyer it is bringing the news from Ghent. The Atlantic ran a cover story featuring a photograph of Bolick standing behind the words “What, me marry?” Internet interviews with her are published under headlines such as “Can women really be happy single?” And bloggers everywhere are gushing: “Oh, me too!”

A book, however, that may, in fact, be bringing us some news from Ghent is an anthology called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Its editor, Meghan Daum, has gathered together a group of people who are refreshingly clearheaded. These are the voices of women (and a handful of men) in their forties, fifties, and sixties—among them Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, and Pam Houston—for whom writing is not simply real work, it is work that defines them. Essentially, and collectively, they are all saying: “I have found that I must make a choice between having children and working full out and, given my particular temperament, not only have I chosen the latter, I have never regretted it.”

Men have almost never had to entertain the question of whether to work or have children. In fact, for them a definition of self never even included having to face squarely whether or not they wanted children. For women, obviously, it has been otherwise. It has always been assumed that every woman not only wanted children but would make any sacrifice necessary to have them. For a woman to say or act otherwise was, until recently, to declare herself not just antisocial but downright unnatural.

It’s not that women who don’t want children have not always existed; it is rather that never before have they—and in such numbers!—felt free to voice openly those sentiments that, coming from them, are considered stigmatizing. How many women could, after years of worrying over whether or not to have children, finally admit, to themselves and anyone listening, that they really didn’t want to have a baby, as Jeanne Safer does: “I longed to feel like everybody else, but I had to face the fact that I did not.”

For Anna Holmes the question never even came up: “The compatibility of career and kids remains a concept I understand intellectually but seem emotionally unable to accept. . . . I don’t believe I can do the things I want to do in life and also be a parent to kids, nor am I willing to find out.”

A much-published journalist whom Shriver interviews says that sometimes, when she sees other people’s children, she thinks, How cute, perhaps? But then reminds herself: “Had I had children, I would have written no books. . . . I’d rather pine for children than die saying to myself ‘I could have been a contender.’ I was a contender.”

To which Houston says amen: “Nobody gets to have it all. . . . You will have one thing or another depending on what choice you make. Or you will have both things in limited amounts, and that might turn out to be perfect, just exactly the life you want.” But it is not the life she wants.

Speaking for her entire generation, Shriver explains: “We are concerned with leading less a good life than the good life . . . we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we are happy.” No hand-wringing here.

It’s the tone of voice dominating the entire anthology that is so exhilarating: thoughtful, unconflicted, unapologetic. Talk about light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the oddest elements in Spinster is the inclusion of a series of sections on five writers—the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, the novelist Edith Wharton, the journalists Neith Boyce and Maeve Brennan, and the social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who are invoked as examples of talented women who struggled to become the heroes of their own lives even, Bolick implies, as she herself is struggling. Summary histories of these women interrupt the narrative regularly (taking up at least half the book) in a misguided attempt to give Bolick’s own story intellectual weight. But why should a woman in early middle age need such models to fortify herself with? And why is it that forty years of feminism on the ground do not come to her aid? Why indeed.

While the women in Daum’s anthology are exciting and admirable, they are not the norm. These women have profited from the promise of becoming that second-wave feminism brought into existence; they see that when a person who is a woman begins thinking for herself it is more likely that work rather than love will provide her with a satisfying sense of identity, and they feel permitted, at this moment, to act without fear of reprisal on that insight. But they remain a minority. A significant, world-changing minority, but a minority nonetheless.

This past year Deborah Rhode, a Stanford law professor who has been writing on the status of women for many years, published a book calling for a sweeping revival of the women’s movement. What Women Want claims that the very success of the 1970s is the central problem for women today, precisely because so many think there no longer is a problem. However, Rhode contends, while “we have made major strides in identifying the barriers to equal opportunity . . . we have done far less well in developing solutions. On virtually every major dimension of social status, financial well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive rights are by no means secure. Women assume disproportionate burdens in the home and pay a price in the world outside it. . . . The labor force remains gender-segregated and gender-stratified, with women still overrepresented at the bottom and underrepresented at the top.”

Persistent social bias, Rhode continues, often prevents or circumvents the enforcement of legal reform. “Four decades’ experience has taught that what the Constitution protects in principle, society can deny in practice.”

Rhode’s book is a sobering reminder of history’s need to take the same territory again and again and yet again before the universal fear of change is defeated, until we realize that each time around that fear is going to look almost exactly as it did the last time. In short: It isn’t over till it’s over.

Bolick’s memoir and Daum’s sixteen writers are, together, a true measure of our times. Depending on your temperament, you will see the glass as either half empty or half full.

Vivian Gornick’s most recent book is The Odd Woman and the City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).