Every little schoolboy knows, to his absolute disgust, what little girls are made of: Sugar and spice and everything nice. Every little schoolgirl knows, with utter contempt, what little boys are made of: Worms and snails and puppy-dog tails. In just such fables as these, say several feminist investigators of the tales of Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm, serious cases of myth-taken identity begin.
Children, particularly girls, need new models and new concepts to nurture esteem for their own sex, and to do that they must first get beyond the sugary Cinderella and Snow White notions of passively waiting for nice things to happen. This is the theme of two new books, "Beyond Sugar and Spice," by Caryl Rivers, a journalist, and Rosalind Barnett and Grace Baruch psychologists; and "Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-bye," by Madonna Kolbenschlag, a "member of a religious community of women."
On first reading, their ideas seem to belabor the obvious; no serious woman imagines that a real prince is en route, not today. But these books argue with no little persuasion that the underlying message of the old-fashioned myths are alive, if not well, in America today. Many women are still intellectually, psychologically and spiritually unprepared to take care of themselves.
The mirror, mirror on the adolescent girl's wall still addresses vanity, not hard truth. The mirror dissembles, obscuring the harsh probabilities -- the probability that the woman the girl will become will have to earn a paycheck of her own to help pay for the life with Prince Charming, the probability that she will support herself in her declining years. The mirror distorts the reality of the perfect children she expects as her due, the idle loneliness she can expect with the swift emptying of the nest.
Both books provide a wide-ranging compendium of scientific studies exploring the ways many young girls evade competition with their peers, particularly boys, during adolescence. They discuss the ways that children's lives are changing during these hectic years, and offer guidelines for passage from the womb to a room of one's own. The authors of "Sugar and Spice" lace their narrative with anecdotes of their own sons and daughters; the author of "Sleeping Beauty" draws on her academic experience as a teacher and researcher. One book chronicles the nitty-gritty tensions of raising children, the other measures religious idealism in terms of "self-actualization," "transcendence," and "redemption."
The more practical "Sugar and Spice" is a hip easy-to-read guide, a "reasoned analysis of the social mythology about what women ought to be and the realities of what they are." The authors argue from inordinate documentation even as they warn against the "experts" who in the past offered "the latest fads and bad science." They stress a belief in the importance of both parents to a daughter's development, arguing that fathers who encourage their daughters to achieve can have a crucial influence on the girl's choice of both career and men.
And so can working mothers. They believe the "maternal deprivation" theories, arguing against mothers seeking careers outside the home, to be false; children who failed to thrive in John Bowlby's classic studies were deprived of much more than their mothers.
Theirs is common-sensical "nuts and bolts" advice, skillfully extrapolated from current research. To help girls better compete against boys in a tough world, they encourage participation in sports and the use of building blocks, puzzles, Erector sets -- the toys usually found in boy's toy chests. For women who want to be full-time mothers, they urge a continuing quest for education, part-time work, or at least volunteer work that might one day lead to the offer of a paying job. They are open-minded, middle-class pragmatists who as psychologists concentrate on stages of physical and psychological development.
Madonna Kolbenschlag wants the development of the child to proceed upward to a sexless spirituality. She seeks a new step in faith to fulfill her perception of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a leap of faith to make women more important. "Women are emerging from dependence on a Father-God," she writes. "They are emerging from a culture-bound, Christ-centered masculine spirituality; . . . they are evolving a relationship to a creative Spiritual Presence, which comes from within them as well as beyond."
For the unchurched, these arguments are parochial to the point of being arcane (and to many of the churched they are merely infidelity in the name of feminism). She draws heavily on the philosophical and abstract language of Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich. Her heroine of heroines is the Virgin Mary, who sums up all female roles -- virgin, mother, bride, bereaved -- "the anti-myth . . . who contradicts the fairy-tale heroines."
"Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-bye" is a curious book, the more so for its following closely the visit of Pope John Paul II. It's an uneven mix of feminist dogma and Roman Catholic theology that stands in sharp contrast to what John Paul said was true Roman Catholic doctrine. The author obscures the exact nature of her own vocation, and in the light of her defense of divorce, contraception and abortion as an individual choice, perhaps wisely.
When she tells men they must shape up or face feminine rejection, she is glib to the point of fatuousness. When she exhorts women like Cinderella to wake up to their true identity, she is sometimes affecting.
All those hours of thankless mopping and scrubbing only rarely are repaid with princes, golden carriages, and matched spans of prancing white stallions, and even little girls might as well learn the awful truth. "The free ride," write the authors of "Beyond Sugar and Spice," "is a myth. The burden of woman's life will, in the end, rest on her own shoulders."