Sometimes I think that American women have been the subject of more research than the entire species of white rats. If every grant, every publisher's advance, every fellowship devoted to the problems of American women had been used to build day-care centers, they would stretch from coast to coast.
This spring there is yet another bumper crop of cover stories, articles and books about women trying to stretch their energy over children and jobs and coming up short. These pieces are the predictable offspring, if you will excuse the expression, of the baby- boom generation of mothers. In the words a friend used at her 40th birthday, they are "suffering from too much of a good thing."
The most heralded, or huckstered, of these tracts is "The Lesser Life" by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who is currently making the circuit from Time magazine to "Donahue." Her premise is that, "Unless women get some relief from their domestic responsibilities, they will continue to fare badly in the labor force."
This is not, despite the cover blurb by Liv Ullmann, "shocking and eye-opening." One generation exchanged depression for stress. Now the stress generation is looking for help.
Hewlett has been there, but her book wobbles intellectually: a ping of truth here, a disappointing thud there. At best she rehashes much that has already been said about the basic economic plight of women. Divorce, an unbending work place, inadequate day care, wild insensitivity to pregnancy round up the usual suspects.
The hook is that after recycling much of the feminist analysis and most of its agenda, she turns around and names feminism as a chief culprit. Up go the television lights, out come the pens.
Many of the recent books and articles include this sort of ritual whack at the women's movement either for "creating" the Superwoman myth or for "forcing" women to turn in the baby carriage for the briefcase. Hewlett charges that the feminist emphasis on equal rights with men caused them to neglect or deny the very family supports needed by women.
The argument about the best route to change -- through equal or special treatment -- has been around for a century, and it's a meaty one. The argument that feminists are "anti-family" has been around since the late '60s, when radicals were giving karate lessons in lofts in lower Manhattan and talking about the cybernization of child-bearing. But in life, as opposed to lofts, there have been feminists behind every parental-leave bill, every child-care bill, every flexible-work plan.
Hewlett looks abroad for her role models, convinced that women have it better in Europe. Sweden, I'll buy. But Italy, Britain, Greece? It's news to them.
It is easy and sexy to focus n an intra- gender battle, first between traditionalists and feminists, now between feminists and post-feminists. The culprit is not feminism, not even what Hewlett describes as the cult of motherhood, but the cult of rampant individualism. In America we still regard each worker as disconnected, each child as private property, and child-raising as an issue for each family to resolve on its own.
If you read an edge of impatience in my words, it's because I have been a working mother now for more than 17 years. In all those years, almost a generation, the need for a more responsive work place and for social supports has been crystal clear. Progress has been a whole lot muddier.
Many of us calculated, or hoped, that when women formed a critical mass in the work force, things would finally change. We now have this mega-generation. Many are trying to have it all by doing it all themselves. Others are struggling to keep their heads above water. Still others are burning out. The problem isn't the women's movement but the lack of movement. The next few years will determine whether this generation produces massive change or massive disappointment.
I admit to a vested interest in this. Right behind the baby boom is my daughter's generation, young women growing up with assumptions. They assume their lives will include work and family. They assume that the work place will adjust. They don't need the problems researched; they need them solved. One child-care center is worth a thousand studies.