The car radio tells me the reaction has set in. The current hot song is a ditty called "I've Never Been to Me." Women call in to request it, sometimes forgetting the title. They ask for the song about being undressed by kings. They should ask instead for the Phyllis Schlafly national anthem. The song is sung by someone named Charlene--no last name. She begins by saying that unlike many women who merely fantasize about affairs in exotic locales, she has put her dreams into practice:
"I've been to Nice and the isles of Greece while I've sipped champagne on a yacht / I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed 'em what I got / I've been undressed by kings and I've seen some things that a woman ain't s'posed to see / I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me."
She has, it turns out, done a lot of what in another era was called "sleeping around." But she is not boasting. She is regretting. Her lament if not her comeuppance is that she is without a child--she is not a mother. And for this reason she is more than just alone or empty, but a failure as a woman. "I've been to crying for unborn children that might have made me complete," sings Charlene.
The interesting thing about this song is that it says motherhood is absolutely necessary to achieve that mystical state called womanhood. The other interesting thing about the song, which happens to be phenomenally popular at the moment, is that it is not new. It was first released five years ago--and bombed. "The timing was not right," said a Motown Records spokesman. But now it is. All of a sudden, conventional motherhood--motherhood unencumbered by careers--is once again being proclaimed. It is not an option, but an imperative. This is the way nature wants it.
This message is not just limited to popular songs but to more highbrow media as well. A recent issue of the respected Washington Monthly contained an article that virtually accused working mothers of all-but-abandoning their children. Those were not the article's words, but that was its import--the reason the article itself became such a cause celebre in certain circles. A whole lot of women were steamed.
What we are seeing is the reaction to the preachings of the women's movement, some of which were misguided, all of which initially were proclaimed as all-inclusive. Pronouncements were made in the name of all women and for all women. Women had to work. Women could not be housewives. They had to have careers. To be an exception was to be a traitor to the sex.
Now the pendulum is swinging back, but again the message is all-inclusive. All women must be mothers and all mothers must be only that--no careers allowed. The message is blunt: Don't challenge. Don't stray. Or, as they say in the commercials, don't fool with Mother Nature. The upshot is that one stereotype has replaced another, but the new one (really the old one) is the more restrictive of the two. It limits options and says that one way and one way only is the right way.
My credentials here are thin. I am a man and therefore supposed to be in no position to comment. But as a man I have a stake in this debate because men, too, have suffered from stereotyped notions of what they should be. For men, one of the benefits of the women's movement was that it shattered stereotypes. It liberated women and in so doing it liberated men as well--even spawned some so-called men's liberation groups.
If women, for instance, did not have to be mothers, then men did not have to be fathers--or, if they were, not conventional ones. If women did not have to be housewives, then men did not have to have careers. The word have was dropped. The word choose was substituted. Men and women could march to the beat of their own drummer, do what made sense to them and not try to conform to some ideal, some stereotype.
That's where the song by Charlene goes wrong. She feels incomplete for not having a child, but the women she counsels feel trapped by having one. The trouble with the song and with the entire countermovement is that the old solutions don't offer paradise, either. Choice is scary, bromides comforting, but the answer, if there is one, is to press on. No song can change the facts. Having a baby doesn't turn someone into a real woman. It just turns her into a mother.