Feminism in its contemporary incarnation -- or women's lib, as it has come to be familiarly known -- has been with us for nearly 25 years now. This is long enough to have compiled a serious record. Is it then a good record or a bad one? Are women better off than they were before? Are men? Are children?
I do not ask these questions out of the blue. They arise from a reading of two novels, one (just published last week) by a man, Avery Corman, and the other (scheduled for publication next month) by a woman, Barbara Raskin.
Both of these novels deal directly with the effects of women's lib on people who were hit by it when they were still young but after they were already married and had begun raising children. Both also center on the experience of reaching the age of 50. In fact, ''50'' is the title of Corman's book. Raskin's title, like her book as a whole, is much racier: ''Hot Flashes.''
In ''50,'' the official onset of middle age forces the hero, a sportswriter, to look back at his career, his marriage, his divorce, his children, his love affairs. In ''Hot Flashes,'' which is a feminist version of ''The Big Chill,'' a group of women -- all either divorced or never married and all belatedly struggling to make something of their formerly neglected talents -- meet again at the funeral of a mutual friend and go through a similar exercise of reassessment.
Taken together, these two reports from opposite sides of the front provide a reasonable basis for tracking the course followed by the war between the sexes over the past two decades. But before taking them together, it is only fair to acknowledge that from a strictly literary point of view ''50'' and ''Hot Flashes'' have very little in common.
Except for the sexual explicitness that it is practically against the law for a novelist to avoid nowadays, Corman has written the kind of story that used to appear in popular women's magazines like Redbook and Cosmopolitan. Raskin, by contrast, writes in the much higher-brow literary mode forged by Philip Roth in ''Portnoy's Complaint'' and later adapted to feminist purposes by lesser novelists like Erica Jong.
In this feminist adaptation, it is the women who let it all hang out, alternately confessing to and bragging about sexual adventures of every variety. In the process of composing very graphic descriptions of such adventures, the author tries to break whatever literary taboos may still be left after so much relentless smashing by equally liberated predecessors.
What we have in this contrast, in other words, is an enactment in literary terms of the very role reversal between the sexes that women's lib has labored so mightily to bring about. The male novelist is romantic, sentimental and banal, especially about sex; the female novelist is cynical, brutal and foul-mouthed, also especially about sex.
In addition, Raskin is more literate than Corman. She comes out of the world of the earnest Ivy League English major of the 1950s who never stopped reading all the best books and never stopped dreaming of writing one that would be worthy of their company. He comes out of the world of advertising and commercial fiction and mainly seems to have his eye on the best-seller lists and the Hollywood screen (both of which were reached in a big way by his earlier and much better novel ''Kramer vs. Kramer'' a few years ago).
Given the profound literary differences between them, it is all the more remarkable that Corman and Raskin should offer such similar accounts of what women's lib has done to the generation of which they are both members, as well as to the children that generation has produced and who now are adults themselves. And considering that both Corman and Raskin are supporters of women's lib, it is even more remarkable that their separate accounts of the movement's effects should add up to a picture of total devastation.
Indeed, if one can believe them (and I do, having already seen with my own eyes so much of what they describe), women's lib has swept over the past two decades like a tornado, leaving behind it a vast wreckage of broken and twisted lives.
Thus, in describing ''the way we live now'' (which is what they both claim to be doing), Corman and Raskin have compiled fictional dossiers of broken marriages leading to other broken marriages or to desperate little affairs; of children sacrificed to the ''needs'' of their parents; of women driven literally crazy by bitterness and self-pity while being encouraged to see virtue and health in the indulgence of such feelings; of men emasculated by guilt and female bullying all in the name of and for the sake of a new and supposedly superior type of relation between the sexes.
I repeat: neither Corman nor Raskin has any intention of attacking women's lib. On the contrary, Raskin is a passionate party-liner (and not only about feminism), while Corman is a fellow traveler forever sweeping his rebellious doubts aside in bursts of liberal understanding. Both would no doubt be horrified to see themselves summoned as witnesses against women's lib.
Yet ''Never trust the artist. Trust the tale,'' said D. H. Lawrence, and what these two tales tell us is that women's lib has been a disaster.
They tell us that it has exacerbated rather than mitigated the female discontents and grievances which originally brought it into being. They tell us that it has made men less rather than more willing to assume responsibility for the women they sleep with and the children they sire. And they tell us that upon those children it has visited the sins of their fathers and mothers in the form of a deep and disabling confusion about what as males and females they really want and need from each other.
Quite an impressive record to have compiled in a mere 25 years.