"I'm tired of all you uppity women coming in here bashing up on men in your lives," said my hairdresser, Aretha, as she began to work up a mean lather with vigorous shampooing.

I asked if she was referring to the fact that women are discussing the continuing controversy over feminist Shere Hite's latest dire portrait of women's lack of satisfaction in their relationships.

"That's the one," she said. "I've been seeing her on television talking about her survey."

"A lot of people have been criticizing her and saying she didn't do good work," I said. "But she said she found widespread evidence of men inflicting 'private emotional violence' on women in the form of insults and hostile, aggressive behavior. Women, she said, are caught between a rock and a hard place, hating that kind of behavior but deeply desiring love."

Aretha gingerly wielded the blow-dryer and snapped, "First of all, when it comes to some women -- especially you educated black women -- being satisfied is almost secondary to the problem of having a man in the first place!"

That was too much. "Listen," I shot back, "it's not black women's fault that there are more available women than men. That's because black men die younger, marry earlier and marry younger women. And besides, 54 percent of working-age black men are unemployed, in correctional facilities or unaccounted for."

"Huhhhh. All that may be true," she said. "But if you ask me, some of you are still too choosy."

Aha! I was ready for her. In the wake of the Hite survey, I had been informally surveying a number of women in Washington on the subject of how satisfied they were in relationships. I found the married ones feeling pretty good about their lives, and single women increasingly trying to create a quality life, even without a partner.

"Listen, once women went to singles bars or grabbed the first man to come along -- whether they were compatible or not -- then endlessly rehashed their frustrations with girlfriends," I said. "The really smart women are now behaving differently."

She was wary. "Yeah, how?"

"Well, one woman who hasn't had a relationship for a year told me that instead of sitting at home being depressed and crazy because there's no man in her life, she maintains a wide schedule of activities with friends. She told me that if you're depressed, you send out vibes of desperation and attract people who aren't good for you."

Aretha snorted. "That doesn't sound like the unmarried women who come in here. They're bitter and negative, saying things like all they meet are the Mr. Wrongs . . . that at first men seem fine but they turn out to have weird problems and expectations."

I told her that since so many people aren't married and living with spouses, their very lives are often the ultimate leaps of faith. "The smart people have learned one of life's hard lessons," I said, "that you don't always have control over things."

"Some of us don't have the luxury of running out at the first sign of trouble," she said. "If my man comes home hurting and in a lousy mood, I just have to step in and make him feel better."

To quash her self-pity, I decided to return to my survey. "The married women I talked with really go the extra mile in their marriages. Some of their husbands pitch in and help and give them emotional support. But a lot of them have even stopped pushing for their rights in their relationships. One woman who had her first baby after being married five years told me her husband is showing signs of jealousy because she doesn't get dinner on the table as quickly as she once did."

"Rights!" said Aretha. "That's a luxury. I'd like to have the right to walk out on my man, but if I walk out on my man I'm going to leave three kids on my hands without a father and won't be eating regularly because they can't live on my salary."

"Listen, I'm not advocating your leaving your husband. I'm only saying that the answer is self-esteem. In fact, a family therapist named Audrey Chapman is giving a workshop soon at Howard University on the connection between love for self and success with love in one's special relationships."

"That's all great," she said. "But I don't have money to go to that workshop. I don't have the money to buy Shere Hite's book and read it. I got my hands full with my man, my three children and my job. And I just got to do the best I can do with what I got. And I say self-esteem is holding together your family."

And then I realized that Aretha had the self-esteem so many women are still searching for, and I respected her.