Superwoman's image is showing a crack, and New York publishers are tripping over each other in their excitement to inspect it.
According to a rash of new or upcoming books and magazine stories from the Big Apple, professional women have paid disproportionately for their corporate gains with their marriages and personal relationships. Together, the coincident works suggest a widespread, hidden frustration with career women's lives that runs counter to the more glamorous popular facade.
There have been hints before of tension between boardroom and bedroom. A Wall Street Journal survey this fall of 722 female executives found a third or more resented the personal sacrifices forced by their careers.
The new publications offer further proof. But when it comes to identifying the cause of the discontent, it's a free-for-all. Pick your publisher, pick your theory. Whom or what do you want to blame?
Lack of corporate support for women's needs? You want Woman on a Seesaw, the new Putnam entry by Hilary (Howard's daughter) Cosell. "The Superwomen in my book call themselves 'Stupor Women,' " says Cosell.
Male backlash? Sabotage by jealous spouses? That's in the May issue of Savvy (the cover with the well-dressed woman bent glumly over her late-night paperwork and a caption reading: "It's 10 P.M. Do You Know Where Your Marriage Is?").
Women's over-combativeness? Try Facts on File's Otherwise Engaged by psychologist/author Srully Blotnick, one of the few males in the bunch.
Women's outmoded attitudes toward their husbands and lovers? That's the theory of psychologist Conalee Levine-Shneidman and co-author Karen Levine, writers of Doubleday's Too Smart for Her Own Good?, excerpted in the April issues of Working Woman and New Woman magazines.
The discontent documented in these and in other new publications -- and confirmed by career counselors and other observers -- suggests a major reexamination of women's values.
"Oh, there's no doubt about it," says Nella Barkley, president of the John C. Crystal Center in New York, life and career planners. "About 50 percent of our clients are women. We certainly are now beginning to see a greater inclination on their part to examine whether it's worth it. They've generally been in their corporate careers long enough that the blush is off the rose . . .
"I've just taken on a client personally who's on a very high level. She made a decision, she and her husband, that they will have no children. It will be extremely difficult to reverse. She's just over 30. She realizes she is owned by the corporation. Meanwhile, she's not sure if she'll make it to the highest levels. She's rethinking her whole values . . . You see the problem with both men and women, but it's more poignant with respect to women because a woman has limited child-bearing years."
The new books and articles contain more than the complaints of a few angry women. The analyses all claim to be research-based: the Blotnick book on interviews with more than 3,000 women, the Doubleday book with 300, the Cosell book with 70. The interview subjects, however, are all nameless and faceless, reduced by contract to statistics, fictional counterparts or composites.
Cosell, whose subjects reportedly include women held up as models of success in magazines like Savvy and Working Woman, explains, "Not one woman I interviewed would allow me to use her real name. They were terrified of professional reprisal, which I understood completely."
Psychologist Levine-Shneidman and co-author Levine (no relation) say nonetheless the situations they describe are authentic. They cite the case of Joanna, a 40-year-old oil broker married to Rick, a lawyer, for 10 years. Joanna pulls in $200,000 a year to her husband's $100,000. When he complains one night that maybe he isn't making as much money as he should, Joanna agrees and gives him pointers on how to get more.
The authors quote Joanna, "Ever since that evening he's been totally inaccessible. He's depressed. He's not interested in talking, let alone having sex. He's really closed himself up. I just can't handle coming home from work to this for much longer. It's too exhausting . . ."
Career women like Joanna, say the authors, have a hard time letting down their tough, competitive work behavior at home.
Some of the new books and articles offer solutions: a redefinition and demystification of success; greater willingness to compromise and cut corners on the job; a rejection of traditional measures -- status and money -- of male worth in a relationship.
Others raise provocative questions about women's roles with misgivings about appearing antifeminist. There's the troubling recognition, says Cosell, that she's "no longer politically correct, or ideologically pure."
But none, not even Blotnick's piece, is intended as reactionary cant to force an unlikely women's retreat from executive offices. "I don't want them to go back home ," says Blotnick. "I think, and my research shows, the combination of work and love still provides the greatest satisfaction."
The picture the authors paint of the downside of corporate women's lives, however, suggests otherwise. There are the long, erratic hours, the limited time and patience for emotional needs of husbands and lovers, the delayed life agendas, the sizing up of prospective dates and mates by misplaced boardroom standards, the inflexibility of the career track, the lack of allowances for child bearing or child rearing and the either/or choice between career and family given many women, but not men, seeking promotion.
In their forthcoming book, Too Smart For Her Own Good?, Levine-Shneidman and Levine cite a study by Mary Whiteside, assistant professor at the University of Texas, and an associate. The study, based on 1,500 men and women who received MBAs from 1920 to 1980, found that 52 percent of workaholic women -- those who work 50 hours a week or more -- were single, compared with 17 percent of the men. Fifteen percent of the women had been divorced, compared with 5 percent of the men. "Women workaholics seem to pay a greater price," says Whiteside.
Hilary Cosell, for five years the writer/producer/editor of NBC's "SportsJournal" before she resigned in March 1983, to write books at home, says she and the women she interviewed know the feeling. "What I saw happening was a lack of balance in my life and the lives of all these professional women. The better their careers got and the better mine got, the more fractured and out of control our personal lives became. This was regardless of whether we were single, married or mothers of small children.
"I loved my job. It was my whole life. I won four Emmy nominations. I got good critical notice. But I lived a lot like the suburban fathers I felt sorry for when I was growing up. I got home (after a 10- or 12-hour day) and I crashed."
Cosell, 30, who is married two years and has no children, says she did not leave her job because it was hurting her marriage. But, she adds, "I felt ultimately it might. I certainly know if I had children, I could not do the job I was doing at NBC and do it well."
Blotnick says the work-and-marriage problem has a flip side as well. He claims his 25-year study of over 3,000 women has shown that "a woman who's unmarried, unhappily married or divorced and given up on her personal life is more than twice as likely to be fired as one who's happily married."
One observer with more than a casual interest in the goings on is Betty Friedan, the 64-year-old activist author of The Feminine Mystique, who helped launch the women's movement of the 1960s. Her 1981 sequel, The Second Stage, calling for a better blending of women's roles and warning feminists against a doctrinaire rejection of "love, nurture and home," met with a hostile reception.
Today, Friedan says she's drawing larger crowds again and sensing a greater need from her audiences. "There's a new raw nerve, a problem that has no name . . . I said to my publisher, 'The Second Stage' was premature. Now is when they need it. Now we're unmistakably up against the problem."
That problem, she says, is the trap within two powerful institutions -- work and family -- still polarized by obsolete, male/female roles. "If a woman tries to have it all -- work, complete with slavish adoption of the male pattern of succcess, where you derive your whole identity by scores in the rat race . . . and at the same time go home . . . and take the main responsibility for the children and home according to the patterns of womanhood of the past . . . in other words playing supermom at home plus superman at work, she's going to be in trouble."
One reason new frustration is surfacing now, believes Friedan, lies in the country's turn to political and social conservatism.
"It's wrong to blame the problem on the women's movement," she says. The movement has had to spend so much time defending affirmative action and abortion -- issues it thought it had won 15 years ago, she says, "that it hasn't had the energy to tackle the real problems of the second stage: child care, rigid working hours, the lack of maternity and paternity leave, the need for new patterns of work . . . It isn't that we've come too far, but that we haven't come far enough."
What worries Friedan, however, is the danger of misdiagnosis.
"The solution is not to go home again. The solution is a more conscious realization that if you're torn between two impossible standards, then you have to stop blaming yourself. It isn't that you should leave the corporate world. It isn't that you should not have children. You can't really escape it by making an either/or choice."
The best women can do for now, she says, is to look for ways to make individual arrangements, cut back on work hours, slough off unnecessary tasks. "And begin at least to think about political solutions."