WHAT WOMEN REALLY WANT

How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live

By Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway with Catherine Whitney

Free Press. 317 pp. $26

Not so long ago, there were troglodytes who worried that granting women rights, offering them equal access to education and careers, and giving them financial and reproductive control would change America. Turns out they were right. And what the changes in laws couldn't accomplish, science and technology have achieved. The country is a different place.

The new American woman has more control over her life and is exerting it. She is staying single longer or even choosing not to marry. She is buying a house on her own. She is having children later -- sometimes raising them on her own, by default or design -- or choosing not to have them at all. She is restructuring her work life or leaving an established career to start her own business in order to have more time and flexibility.

In "What Women Really Want," pollsters Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway -- the former a Democrat, the latter a Republican -- use a sheaf of recent poll data to detect and define this subtle revolution. There is nothing really startling in what they report. After all, everyone knows the women described in this book; they are our neighbors, friends, sisters and daughters -- and us, for that matter. But they represent a trend -- one that the authors draw out from charts, examples and reams of statistics.

America has become feminized, the authors write. Of those employees taking family leave in 2003 at Ernst & Young, for example, 46 percent were men. According to Lake and Conway, women are reshaping the culture to suit their needs. It isn't just a question of women challenging a male norm, they write: "Women have become the norm."

Surely that's an exaggeration, but not entirely. As this new woman has children later in life, the generation gap is disappearing; the 20-year-old mom and the 40-year-old mom are waiting side by side at the kindergarten door. At home, she is redefining her role. She has more of a handle on the purse strings; more and more women are managing their own investments. She is probably not a computer geek, but she is using the new technologies in ways that enhance both her freedom and the connections she considers vital -- shopping online, e-mailing and searching for information even as her cell phone helps her keep track of her family. She's even making money online. Of the sellers on eBay, more than 55 percent are women, and they account for $1.2 billion in sales annually.

Still, our notional American woman's priorities haven't changed as much as one might think. The well-being of her family is critically important, but the shape of those families has evolved. "Only one-fourth of Americans currently live in a 'traditional' family composed of a married couple and their children," report Lake and Conway.

The reported face-off between working mothers and stay-at-home moms is something of a media creation, they suggest, with more linking the two groups than dividing them. A quarter of working moms work fewer than 40 hours per week, the authors' statistics reveal, while the same percentage of stay-at-home moms actually do some part-time work. In fact, more moms are staying at home; recent statistics show the first big decline in the number of working mothers since 1976.

If all this sounds a little too rosy, it is. The ability to make choices declines with income. Low-income "waitress moms" (as the authors call them) have few options, and if the fight to support basic needs is a challenge for two-paycheck families, it is twice the burden for a single parent.

Attempting to gain concessions in the workplace to accommodate the needs of mothers continues to be a struggle. The biggest challenge for women is finding the balance between work and family, but close on its heels are two other concerns: equal pay for equal work and reaching the top of their professions.

Women today certainly aren't working less. "The rat race was invented by men . . . but somehow, what was once the province of corporate America has migrated into the daily grind," note Lake and Conway. While large numbers of both men and women report being overworked or overwhelmed by the demands of their jobs, the survey discovered that women are more overworked than men.

That's true even at home. Women's share of the housework hasn't declined in the past 30 years despite their growing numbers in the workplace. That could explain why 66 percent of American women say they need more sleep, compared with only 42 percent of men. And the long-term health effects of lost sleep might account for the fact that the most rapid climb in credit-card debt comes from elderly women paying for prescription drugs -- women who may simply have worn themselves out.

Interestingly, when female respondents were asked what they wanted more of, the longing for peace crowded out other options such as time, love, money, laughter and security. Less loftily, women still want to be thinner in great numbers -- even though they are, sensibly, "not willing to chop off a year of their lives to get there." On a positive note, 22 percent of women wouldn't change a thing about the way they look.

The portrait that Lake and Conway coax from their numbers will be illuminating and fascinating for women and their partners. "What Women Really Want" will also be an important resource for marketers and political campaigns. But the authors have chosen to give loudest voice to those women most able and most likely to make decisions about buying and voting. While the numbers representing the concerns of lower-income women are there on the pages -- about 38 percent of never-married moms live below the poverty line, for example -- their voices in this book are very quiet indeed. And yet their need to be heard may be the greatest of all. That omission dilutes the relevance of an important book.