ELIZABETH JANEWAY has done us a number of significant favors in recent years, as she has gone deeper and deeper into the historic situation of women in society, with particular reference to woman's place today. She has informed us of the leadership of women in other times, from the medieval period when women were left to tend to the multifarious duties and responsibilities of running principalities, estates, manors and farms, while the males were off -- sometimes for years -- running wars, to the settlement of the American West, when women functioned, perforce, as full working partners of their men. She has told us how many of our notions of woman's place are of relatively recent vintage -- many of them dating from the Victorian era, the '20s, even the '50s -- when they have been seen as calcified by ancient tradition. She has pointed out that the nuclear family is fast becoming a myth of the Moral Majority, and that its destruction is not reversible by forcing women out of jobs, banning abortion, praying in the schools or denying sex information to the young. And Janeway is not simply airing her prejudices; her learning is abundant, and her statistics impressive:

"Back in 1950, six married men were breadwinners for every married woman; now it's less than two." "The once average family of four (both parents present) where only the father works has shrunk to an unprecedented low: in 1976 a mere 7 percent of all families. At the same date, nearly 20 percent of American families were headed by women." The vast majority of women work because they must, not because they long for a color TV. Among other fascinating figures, we learn that only half of divorced or separated women are paid the child support to which their children are entitled. And women, married or single, must worry about their young ones while at work, and worry about their jobs when they must take off time to aid their children, and are denied, for the most part, the support of adequate child-care facilities to relieve their burdens and reduce their frantic anxiety.

When I was a girl, I was always thrilled when I saw the label of the International Ladies' Garment Worker's Union sewed into my clothes. The women who made my blouses and skirts had their own union! It was only a few years ago that I met a retired union official, vacationing in Mexico, who told me that she had been, and still was, the only female union official in the history of the ILGWU, and that her life with her colleagues had been one of intense frustration, as her proposals were habitually ignored or voted down. Janeway confirms that in occupations where women are in a vast majority, all the unions are dominated and run by men.

It is difficult to think of another woman writing today who is more trenchant and illuminating in her commentary on our situation. Occasionally Janeway is so urgent in her need to inform us that she slides into jargon words such as "meaningful," "nurturing," "nitty-gritty," and "input"--the shorthand of a woman in a hurry. Since I am attempting, right now, to avoid the use of the phrase, "role model" in describing her, I see the problem.

Cross Sections is her collection of essays from the last 10 years, "a decade of change." Two major essays are a history of the women's movement, which is as good as you can find anywhere, and a piece on American women's literature she wrote in 1977 for the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, recently revised, owing to the outpouring of women's writing since that time. But in mid-1974, when Janeway began to search out American women writers publishing since 1945, there was not a single guide to aid her. So what we have here is an original survey, admirably comprehensive, of our recent work, supplemented by later reading. However, this means, as Janeway points out, that "we have no standard canon and no accepted measures for judging this writing." Good! The reader is invited to disagree and to supplement the list of writers discussed. On the whole, it is a shrewd and thoughtful analysis, from her comment on the parallel Gertrude Stein draws, in Wars I Have Seen (1945), between the situation of women and that of an occupied country, to her description of Elizabeth Hardwick's critical and imaginative intelligence, "of such a high order that one feels it stands outside of history."

I enjoyed very much the sight of Janeway, this intelligent woman who has been preoccupied with other matters, turn her full attention to poetry: Louise Bogan! Muriel Rukeyser! H.D.! Mona Van Duyn! What a good time she has, reading them and speculating about them; she has an acute appreciation of the insight that a fine poem can convey in a phrase.

But I must resist the temptation to dwell on Janeway's literary essays, when there is real meat and potatoes in the chapters on work and sex. Here are two comments on woman as achiever: "If women hesitate to take prompt and decisive action," it isn't so much the famous fear of success as it is "sheer, learned self-doubt," based on the unpredictability of our situation, as we wait for instructions from a higher authority. "One ends by simply not daring to care or to think ahead of what may be." Which leads us "to the well-known finding that women and members of powerless inferior groups and classes have trouble delaying the satisfaction of their desires. . . . If you can't tell what's going to happen to you, if your judgment of events has been rendered suspect even in your own mind, how can you possibly waste time trying to imagine a future?" (Reading these words, my heart goes back 15 years, to Pakistan, where Khadar, my highly intelligent bearer, wants passionately to have me buy him a transistor radio from the PX, because the other "boys" own them; his wife is going to have a baby, he has no job lined up, and I am about to leave the country. We are both in tears as I lecture on thrift and prudence -- thrift and prudence! hardly the watchwords of my life -- and I refuse to buy him the radio. Well, the baby dies anyway, I learn much later when I am safely home. And Janeway has me in tears again, remembering.)

Another insight has to do with, "our own general commitment to the need we perceive to keep things running." We have habitually cooked, cleaned, minded the store and the baby; even if well-off, we have run the errands, made the appointments, picked up the cleaning, driven the children to the dentist and the dancing class, and so on. Well, why not? our men inquire, in reasonable tones. It's not as if these jobs were so arduous, compared to the world's work, which wears them out. Most of our responsibilities don't even require any special talents or training. That, of course, is the point: the trivial nature of the chores of the daily round. "The combination of everydayness with femininity has, in fact, worked to trivialize both. Our commitment to keep things running, without protest as a group, without offering and insisting on new ideas and new ways . . . has operated as a very strong social control on ambition and achievement in other fields." Even as this is being written, more and more couples are concerning themselves with the equitable distribution of trivial tasks. It is fashionable to write about this as if it were a worldwide trend, rather than a series of individual patchwork arrangements. Janeway suggests that we turn our attention to broader political and social solutions, without being terribly specific about them. Who can be? It hasn't been tried before, and we have to work it out as we go along.

Female sexuality, Janeway believes, "has always been used by society as a sort of glue to hold structures together. . . . Attempts are still made to enlist its aid in preserving order within family and social relationships, but more and more they take on the air of desperate bricolage. The power of sexuality is being invoked in semimagical fashion, to support outworn paradigms that no longer explain and predict events in the world. The salt has lost its savor, the glue its glueyness." These paradigms have been imposed from without. "They do not grow out of the interior emotional reality of the female self." And, "coming out of an alien understanding as they do, they are never really satisfactory, even when they seem to be accepted and absorbed quite thoroughly." Masculine visions of female sexuality "are attempts to manipulate woman's vision of herself."

When it was useful for men to see us as ravenous lustful tools of Satan, they did so, egged on by a powerful Church. In Victorian times, however, we suddenly became pale frigid creatures, clamped onto our pedestals by the Protestant church as the exemplars of moral authority. Heigh-ho! No wonder we've had to keep loose and watch the signals. Now the failure of the old paradigms forces us to look for new ones. How? When we have not yet had enough time living "as free people in shared authenticity," to give our minds free play. We can begin, however, to define ourselves by what we do not want. "We do not want to reglue ourselves into a social structure that is essentially patriarchal. We do not want to accept the mothering function as central to our true identity, and we should certainly be wary of the attempts now being made to make us chief, if not sole, child raisers, attempts that in the '50s enjoyed a relative success. . . . The proliferation of novels and films featuring deserted husbands, aghast at having to manage personal lives, stunned with self-pity, has this as an end."

Central to change is to understand where we are. To know this, we must understand where we have been. To know that, "we must understand process as the first step to managing change." This is what Elizabeth Janeway is all about.