In one moment, she wrapped it all up, the whole decade of change, the remaining problems, the new anxieties. Betty Friedan, the founding mother, the astute and caring observer of the women's movement, stood in front of a New York audience last month and said: "We told our daughters you can have it all. Well, can they have it all? Only by being Superwoman. Well, I say no to Superwoman!"
By any media calculation, the audience was a collection of superwomen. They wore their raised consciousness layered with dress-for-success suits. Yet they broke into spontaneous applause. They, too, were saying no to the Superwoman myth.
That moment is as a good a place as any to stop and assess, to review and preview.
For all the social change in the past decade, all the rhetoric and action, we have moved from one national ideal of True Womanhood to another -- from Supermom to Superwoman. The girl who was told that when she grew up she should get married and have children and keep house is now a grown-up woman being told that she should be married, have children, keep house and a job or, better yet, a career.
While mothers at home felt increasingly pressured for "not working," mothers in the work force feel increasingly pressured by the double burden. They have been "liberated" to the Russian model -- have a new role on top of an old one.
Every study shows the same things. The overwhelming number of working mothers do the overwhelming amount of housework and child care. They may not have it all, but they seem to do it all.
Why has the change been so lopsided? I have asked that question a hundred times and heard a dozen different answers, ranging from the psychological to the economic. One feminist psychiatrist says that women spent the decade proving themselves. A sociologist believes that the person who initiates the change -- the person who goes to work even out of necessity -- accepts the personal responsibility for it.
A woman from a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore tells me that women are stretching their own energy to cover both their traditional and non-traditional values: the desire or demand to make Christmas pudding and a salary. An economist offers a different theory: "The average woman earns 59 cents to her husband's dollar. She sees her time as worth less and overworks herself. She gets it twice."
And last week a union leader said, "Remember three things. One: a lot of women with lousy jobs hope they'll be able to quit. By doing everything, they think they're keeping their options open. Two: the home is the only place some women have any power. They sure don't want to let go of that. Three: never underestimate the power of the men in their lives to resist."
Perhaps single mothers were the first to wipe off the unbeat Superwoman makeup that covered the lines of fatigue. But now it seems to many women that the Superwoman model who looked so chic at the beginning of the decade looks worn at the end.
In 1970, women had just begun to agitate collectively for new choices. But in 1980, the "daughters" who were to "have it all" face new choices that are still limited, frightening as well as attractive.
Many women, especially those "up against the clock" of their 30s, approach motherhood with fear and trembling. Those for whom homemaking, even temporary, is not a psychological or economic possibility see only two choices: superdrudge or childlessness.
In Washington, a 45-year-old woman says ironically, "I saw my mother frustrated at home. My daughter sees me overworked. I'm not such a great role model myself."
Superwoman was in part a creation of the self-help, self-reliant, self-improvement '70s. This was the flip side of the so-called Me Decade. It was not new narcissism, but new isolation masked as independence.
"I used to take pride in being a Superwoman," said a Manhattan woman listening to Friedan that afternoon. "Now I see it not as a personal victory, but as a failure. A failure of my relationship with my husband, a failure of the work world, maybe even a failure of the society that just isn't adjusting to the way we live."
The Superwoman myth is exploding like an overstuffed sofa. Women are no longer willing to look inside themselves for all the answers and all the energy. At the turn of the decade, they don't want a Superwoman pep talk any more. They long for something more precious and more realistic: a support system -- of families, the work place and the community -- to fend off this cultural kryptonite.