Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dear Maureen Dowd. . .

I haven't read Maureen Dowd's new book, but I have read the excerpt that was posted in the New York Times last week. Reading it was like reading an anthropological study about life on another planet -- it had that little to do with my real life experiences.

Dowd's complaint seems to be that feminism didn't cure all the world's ills and instantaneously raise every woman in America's consciousness. She says, "Maybe we should have known that the story of women's progress would be more of a zigzag than a superhighway, that the triumph of feminism would last a nanosecond while the backlash lasted 40 years," as if feminism is defunct because the battle didn't end in 1969. Yes, you should have known, because all social change is a zigzag. All the progress in civil rights is hard-won and slow -- it's always two steps forward/one step backwards, because there's always a hell of a lot of people who are deeply invested in the status quo.

But anyone who thinks that women are no better off, or actually worse, than they were in the 60's (or the 50's or the 40's or earlier) is blind.

My grandmother was married at fifteen, had four children in five years, and lived in abject poverty because her husband was an alcoholic who couldn't hold a job, and she had no skills or education to support herself. She finally left him and went to beauty school, but five years later, they reconciled and she had another baby. A few months after that, my grandfather killed himself, leaving her with five children to support. Her sister suggested that she had no option but to give her children up for adoption, but my grandmother worked nonstop to keep her family together. Eventually she remarried and things became easier, but she continued working most of her adult life as a beautician and helping in her second husband's grocery store.

My mother was married at seventeen, before her senior year of high school. She finished high school, but never went to college (her mother and step-father made it clear that they wouldn't help pay for it, since there was no need for a woman to have an education). She was a stay at home mother, and never had a career. She says that the biggest reason she didn't work much was that she wouldn't have been able to find a job that payed well without a degree, and with my dad getting transfered all the time (he was career military), she wouldn't have been able to stay at any job for very long.

I was twenty when I got married. I have a college degree and a masters degree. Just like my grandmother and my mother, I've had to find a way to juggle being a wife and a mother with my career goals (and with supporting my family), but unlike them, I've had opportunities that give me a much wider range of options: parents who supported me, assumed I would go to college and have a career, and helped pay for college; birth control to limit the size of my family; acknowledgement that my career goals are as important as my husband's; scholarships, fellowships, and jobs that women might not have even been considered for before the 70's; daycare options. No, it's not a piece of cake, but I'm immensely grateful for the opportunities that feminism has given me.

Reading Dowd's piece, I don't recognize the women I know in her anecdotes about Sex in the City style gals, and I really don't recognize the men I know in her stories about unenlightened men who are threatened by educated, powerful women. My husband isn't perfect, but we've NEVER had the sort of retro Doris Day/Rock Hudson relationship that Dowd describes in her essay. We've always been friends, not antagonists in some game in which I had to "trap him" into marrying me. Frankly, I'm insulted on his (and my other male friends) behalf. It's not that I don't believe that women and men like this exist, but they certainly aren't well-represented among my friends and acquaintances.

Maybe it's because I'm younger than Dowd (she's 3 years younger than my mother), maybe it's because she's writing from a very New York City perspective, maybe it's a class thing - I'm pretty solidly middle class, and I don't usually associate with "top New York producer"s and "very beautiful and successful actress"es, but nothing about Dowd's essay resonated with me or felt familiar. It's like she's writing about another species.


At 1:06 PM, Blogger Adam said...

She is writing about another species.

Rich people.

Hell, working class women have always worked, 'cause they don't have any other option.

At 10:32 PM, Anonymous gordsellar said...

She's also writing for the sake of complaining, I suspect.

I was corresponding online in a mailing list with a group of women running a magazine whose website I built -- one you ought to consider submitting to, they're not paying yet but would love good material: see -- and anyway, one of the contributors (not an editor) seemed to be caught up in a struggle to claim for women what I call "coveted victim status". Every email she sent depicted men as oppressors and women as powerless victims. It was annoying, and I came very close to telling her off and inviting her to visit Korea if she wanted to see what being oppressed by men in a developed country was really like.

Women can't smoke in public here. They hear nasty comments if they don't wear makeup, to the point of bosses sometimes telling them to take the trouble to beautify themselves from now on. They often have no choice but to be homemakers even if they want other careers. Sure, some of these homemakers also have -- and very determinedly hang onto -- the kind of authority this affords them in household and child-rearing matters. But in many ways, it's a modern society in which feminism has not yet happened, or not yet to the degree that it has in the West, and because of this it's often reminiscent of America in the 40s or 50s. Which is why I look at some of the comments that woman on my mailing list made, and reply, "You have no idea...", even though, as a man, it'd be easy for her to reply the same to me.

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At 1:15 PM, Blogger Adam said...

Hon, looks like you need to add a verification thingy on your comments, 'cause the comment-spam goobers are having a field day!

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At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mel,
You DID get spammed didn't you!?

I enjoyed reading the Dowd piece, however meandering it was, because she is bringing feminism forward and saying "Where are we now?" Although it does have a venting tone. Thank God we are where we are...when my boss's boss's boss (who is a woman) can publically talk about liking shoes and not be laughed out of the room.

I do find some modern things disconcerting the freakin' Bratz clothing and toys for girls. HELLO! Let's buy baby prostitutes or hoochy mamas for our girls to play with! I also DO kind of feel for men on the whole "who pays?" dilemma that Dowd talks about. It does seem that well-intentioned men are in a catch-22, though I understand that there is a "where does manners meet feminism...and when is it OK to just stand by tradition?" quandry. I agree that Dowd's frustration is age-linked and I do see that, like many movements, those who benefit from it forgetting or putting aside the tough battles that came before...and relaxing a bit. Maybe it IS OK for women to lust after Manolo Baniks or however you spell it. My formerly feminist Mom (long story) raised me to value my health and to respect charity giving too much to buy spiked heels that cost way more than many people make in a year in this 'ole world of ours. It does just KILL me that educated women have created a culture in NYC or wherever, that you feel social pressure to pay that kind of money to squeeze your foot into something that makes you teeter around like an idiot when on cracked surfaces!!!! How's that for a rant?
Please forgive,

At 2:17 PM, Blogger m. said...

hey- nice letter. It is a class thing, and a culture thing too. Who the heck things that Ivy League guys are the only 'marriagable' people out there? Please. All the 'grils' their 20s and 30s whom I know are not relating _at all_ to Dowd. Coincidentally, I wrote a letter to her, too-- on my blog at Scenes from the Next. I'd be curious to hear what you think.


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