Sally Schmidt, a 32-year-old Manhattan lawyer, was standing at a cocktail party recently talking to another young woman.
"What do you do?" Schmidt asked.
The woman looked away, embarrassed. She cleared her throat, and mumbled something about being "retired."
Schmidt instantly recognized the syndrome.
"Don't feel bad," she shouted gleefully. "I quit too!"
Schmidt, a highly motivated, educated woman who spent the last decade jumping through all the right career hoops, gave up her pin-striped suits and $65,000-a-year salary to stay home.
Not with a child. With herself.
"These women were risk-takers to begin with," Schmidt says. "They got into the men's schools and braved the work world. What they found is that men have only one choice. For women, it's a sort of antifeminist thing, but we're capable of being successful in other ways."
Although there is no evidence that women are leaving the work force in droves -- the statistics, in fact, point to the reverse -- a number of frustrated female professionals are turning their backs on the 1980s in favor of the 1950s. It is a small underground of women who delight in defying the social order, who revel in their rebellion by cooking gourmet meals and washing their husband's socks and staying in bed all day if they so desire.
Some call themselves "women at home." Others say they are "leisure persons." Whatever the name, the phenomenon is rare enough to raise eyebrows nowadays in certain upwardly mobile circles.
Schmidt attended Yale University (she was a member of the second class to admit women) and received her law degree from Vanderbilt. "Credentials," she says, "were crucial."
After five years as an associate with the Manhattan law firm of Simpson, Thatcher and Bartlett, she quit. In defying the current climate of careerism, Schmidt says that she and other women "are rejecting the notion that we had to look, smell and talk like our fathers. I think we really wasted five or 10 years trying to imitate men."
As for the women in other law or business firms, the bright-eyed yuppies frazzled by 100-hour work weeks, the kind of woman Sally Schmidt used to be, "They're wearing blinders. There's still the belief that they're going to beat the odds."
There is growing evidence that women -- more than 50 percent of whom now work outside the home -- have taken to the work place with a vengeance. In a recent survey by the American Management Association, 60 percent of the women interviewed reported getting the most satisfaction in life from their careers. Only 37 percent of the men felt the same.
But something is happening. A decade ago, women's magazines overflowed with earnest features on getting ahead. Now the same magazines warn of burnout and career addiction.
Have women gone too far?
"Women are tired," says Marion Rudin Frank, a Philadelphia psychologist who specializes in the problems of professional women. "I don't think they're ready to give up what they've worked so hard to achieve, but I think there's a certain amount of disenchantment with the feminist movement. Women are redefining what success is for them. I see women all the time who have worked so hard and are proud of what they've accomplished, but say, 'I'm not happy.' "
Rhoda Frindell Green, a career counselor and psychologist based in New York, believes the dropout trend among highly motivated, educated women is significant.
"I see a lot of it," she says. "And the women I see it happening to are more and more on a higher level. Society's pressures are super high now for women to achieve. It's been building since the late 1960s. In fact, the pressure is similar to the pressure society put on women in the 1950s to marry and have children."
But now, she says, many of the women who chose careers over relationships feel unfulfilled.
"These women who leave are going against the current. What they are implying is some needs are not being met and they are unable to change the system, to correct what's wrong. We see them withdrawing. They're disappointed."
"I think the nature of work is changing for a lot of people," says Kathleen Herman, a 31-year-old former investment banker in Manhattan who recently left her top-paying job with Merrill Lynch. "I don't think it's women only. There are a lot of people who are thinking along those lines. It's true that so much hype is put on women, but men are just as equally trapped."
But it is the women who feel a profound sense of disappointment, perhaps, like Sally Schmidt, because of what they see as wasted years trying to imitate men. They willingly wear the business suits and floppy bow ties, convinced that the right uniform will send the right message.
And it does.
A recent study by two psychologists concluded that the less feminine a woman's appearance in the work place, the more competent she is perceived to be. The research, published in the December issue of Psychology Today, found that if "a woman wants to succeed in a man's world, she had better not look too feminine . . . Specifically, candidates groomed in a more feminine style were perceived to be less managerial; less intrinsically interested in work; less likely to be taken seriously by others; more illogical and overemotional in critical decision-making; less financially responsible; more helpless and dependent . . ."
Says Sally Schmidt, "They ought to burn pin-striped suits for women."
Some women who have opted out of pressure-cooker careers are motivated by a certain backlash against the women's movement. They say the feminism of the 1970s backed many women into a corner: career versus motherhood. One Washington woman who recently left her job was repeatedly asked if she was pregnant. "It seems to be the only acceptable reason these days for a woman to leave her job," she says angrily.
Many women who have stopped trying to make it in a man's world say they now want to make it in a woman's world.
"I think we're finding out that what we saw from the outside, what we thought was power and satisfying, in fact isn't," says a 32-year-old woman who left her position as an associate with a prestigious law firm last year. "Every woman lawyer I know hates it."
If it hadn't been for the women's movement, she says, "We would have logically said, 'I don't want to sit in an office all day. That's not what I'm good at, or that's not what satisfies me.' We do have different talents than men in a lot of ways. It's been a man's world in the work place and I don't think women have been given the opportunity to fit themselves into a man's glove. I really resented it. The different talents I could bring to situations were not appreciated. Part of it, I'm sure, was that I didn't want to become a man."
She now stays at home, cooking gourmet meals for her husband, walking the dog, cleaning the house, doing the dishes and reading. She says she does not want to have children, although she admits to discovering a strong "nesting" instinct, long suppressed during her years in the corporate world. "You don't want to admit that this side of yourself exists because it sounds too much like your mother, too much of a throwback."
Ironically, the only person who reacted negatively to her decision was her mother.
"She was primarily the reason I went to law school. It was her urging me not to do what she did. She is upset by my not working. She says she wishes she were competent to do something."
The nonworking nonmother understandably experiences more resistance in large urban areas, especially on the East Coast, than in rural locations.
"The reaction here has been amazing," says Janis Lamberth, 47-year-old former reading specialist who quit her job in Texas to join her husband -- Royce Lamberth, chief of the Civil Division in the U.S. Attorney's office -- in Washington. "One of my husband's deputies said I was a credit liability to him."
She is sitting in her suburban Virginia town house. There's a copy of Vogue on the coffee table, and a piece of stitchery in her hands. "I think there's a lot more pressure in this area than there would be in the Southwest, where I'm from. It was amazing, the reaction I got from people when I was introduced." As a nonworking woman with no children, she was an oddity.
"I developed a line. I said I was a 'leisure person.' Everybody does a double take. They don't understand what that is.
"Several friends have said they are ready to stop work, which five years ago they never would have said.
"Many of them are envious. They say, 'I'd love to do that.' But the men are the ones who have come out with some obnoxious remarks. I used to get very defensive. But I've gotten them long enough where it doesn't bother me. At first it really appalled me. The man who said I was a credit liability -- that I wasn't producing and making money is what he meant by that remark -- really took me aback. I came home and said to Royce, 'Do you want me to go back to work?' He's left that totally up to me. He said, 'If you want to go back to work that's fine, but don't go back to work because of what he said to you.' "
Her husband, she says, "is so spoiled I'm not so sure he would like that to change."
At first there was difficulty making friends outside the work place. "I thought there would be a lot of women in the neighborhood that I would get acquainted with. But no one is home."
She says she has no trouble finding things to do.
"Everybody says to me, 'What do you do to keep busy?' I belong to a lawyers' wives club. I go to aerobics three or four times a week. I bowl once a week. I do a lot of things for my husband down at his office. I entertain. I take food down to him. One year, I made all the secretaries Christmas presents. I do an awful lot for him."
She and her husband had a chance to adopt a child but decided against it. She isn't sure they have the energy, and they love to travel. She's also surprised herself by becoming interested in something she never thought she'd enjoy: cooking. "My mom was always such an excellent cook. I never thought I'd get into cooking, but it's really important for me to do this."
Dinner, she discovered, "was the only time we had to sit down and really talk. If I had a nice, lovely dinner, he'd get his mind off of law.
"I enjoy cleaning the house," she confides. "I know that sounds dumb, but I enjoy having it look nice."
If she went back to work, she says, they could afford the new drapes she wants and other things for the house, but material possessions are not a priority.
For Janis Lamberth, not working is a new experience. She put herself through college and graduate school and left a $20,000-a-year teaching job to do what other women are in the process of avoiding.
"I think I try to please my husband a lot more than before. I don't see any reason why I shouldn't do that. I really try hard to please him and make him happy." She pauses. "I don't know how I would ever do what I do now and go back to work."
Nancy Mills, a 37-year-old former department store buyer and boutique owner, left her career after 15 years when she married last spring. She had lived in New York, Atlanta and Florida and was no stranger to seven-day work weeks.
"I don't miss it at all," she says over an avocado salad in an Old Town restaurant. She is an attractive woman with a taste for chunky gold jewelry and high fashion. "None of my friends ever worked. Now, all of a sudden, they're trying to get out and get a job and trying to find themselves. Now they feel like they're missing something.
"They thought I had a very glamorous life."
She traveled extensively as a buyer for Neiman-Marcus, and later Lord & Taylor. "I had gorgeous clothes. It looked like I had a really neat life. The year I turned 30, I got really depressed. I thought, 'I don't know if I really want to do this for the rest of my life.' "
She says her schedule -- working 10-hour days, never having a weekend or holiday off -- left little time for other things. "I missed a lot," she says quietly. "But I'd rather do it the way I did -- rather than be 37 and feel I had to go find myself."
Years ago, a man was embarrassed if his wife worked. Today -- in certain upwardly mobile circles -- he's embarrassed if she doesn't.
"Harry's much more sensitive about it than I am. It really throws him for a loop," Mills laughs. "But he's getting better about it. If we were in a financial bind, I wouldn't think twice about going back to work. I don't get bored, either. That's something Harry can't understand. Every once in a while, he's made a cutting remark about it, but in the long run he's got everything that he wanted. He's got a nice house. He takes great pride in that."
The only thing that bothers her is being financially dependent on her husband. She receives an allowance from the joint account every month and transfers it to her personal account.
She leaves her Alexandria town house every morning at 7:30, drives to Warrenton to play tennis, gets back at noon and cleans the house, goes to the grocery, takes long walks and reads. She also has the freedom to accompany her husband on business trips, on which she has already experienced some uneasy moments.
"One woman executive who attends these meetings will have nothing -- I mean nothing -- to do with the wives of the executives. I have tried my best to get a smile out of her, and I can't. She'll sit and laugh with the men, but she won't give the wives the time of day."
Other women she has encountered, she says, "make very condescending remarks. I think it's envy. Maybe not so much what I'm doing, but that it was my choice and I'm happy with the choice."
She says women who devote themselves to their careers are making a mistake. "I don't know why. I think they've gone too far. I think some people set expectations too high. You'll never be happy, because you're always fighting, always competing."
Mills says the atmosphere in Washington is so career-oriented that she and her husband have decided to leave. They are moving to Warrenton, where she says there will be more women who stay at home. Her husband will commute.
"I think some career women are very self-centered. They're trying to prove something and make themselves happy." She leans forward, looking tan and rested and utterly at ease with the world. "Other things would make them happy if they let them."