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A woman's place

Once it felt as if there was no choice but to stay home with the kids -now it feels as if there's no choice but to work.Why not have a family first and career later?

As a critic of feminism, I've often been accused of wanting to send women "back." Back to where is not usually spelled out. It's supposed to be obvious - back to split-levels and aprons, beehive hairdos and marriages to Ozzie Nelson. To question the impact of the past 30 years of social change upon women's lives is considered a provocative thing to do - at least if you're doing it from a nonfeminist point of view.

Although feminism, as a conscious political movement, can boast fewer adherents today than the Czech Communist Party, its beliefs and assumptions about the way women should live their lives remain strong. We have absorbed the lesson that we should forgo - or postpone - marriage and children in order to forge careers; when married, we should not depend on our husbands, either to stay married to us for the long haul or to support us when we have children; we should not ultimately look to our families for satisfaction or happiness - those things are best realized in our jobs, and in our spiritual growth as individuals.

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That this wisdom may be faulty is tough to swallow. So many of us imbibed these ideas and plotted our lives according to them that even as we're reeling from their effect we don't want to reject them. Yet reject them we must if we're to begin to solve the problems women face today.

When you look around at modern women's lives, I think few of us would be able to say confidently that the progress we've made has resulted in net gain. Yes, we are freer than any generation of women in history to hold positions of power in the workplace and in government; but this has come at the expense of power over our personal lives. I've heard many accomplished modern women complain - without irony - that they don't have the "choices" their own mothers had.

Some are college graduates who simply can't figure out how they're going to do it all - or even just one piece of it: find a decent man to marry, have children and a career, and yet also enjoy the sort of family life that was often absent in their own upbringing, as the products of divorced and/or working parents. Some are successful thirtyish vice presidents of companies or partners in law firms who fret that they will never be able to meet a man or have children. Some are working mothers who feel they have no choice but to work, even while their children are infants - just as a previous generation of women felt they had no choice but to stay home with their kids rather than work.

All of these women are bound together by the same problem: Call it a new "problem with no name." And it's exactly the reverse of the old, 1950s problem with no name that Betty Friedan wrote about in "The Feminine Mystique."

In Ms. Friedan's time, the problem was that too many people failed to see that while women were women, they were also human, and they were being denied the ability to express and fulfill their potential outside the home. Today the problem is that while we recognize that women are human, we have blinded ourselves to the fact that we are also women. If we feel stunted and oppressed when denied the chance to realize our human potential, we suffer every bit as much when cut off from those aspects of life that are distinctly female - whether it's being a wife or raising children or making a home.

For if, as women, we were all to sit down and honestly attempt to figure out what sort of lives would make us happy, I suspect - assuming the basics like food and adequate income, and leaving aside fantasies of riches and celebrity - that most of our answers would be similar to one another's, and quite different from men's. They would go something like this:

We want to marry husbands who will love and respect and stay with us; we want children; we want to be good mothers. At the same time, many of us will want to pursue interests outside of our families, interests that will vary from woman to woman, depending upon ambition and talent. Some will be content with work or involvements that can be squeezed in around commitments at home; some will want or need to work at home; some will want or need to work at a job, either full or part time. Other women may be more ambitious - they may want to be surgeons or executives, politicians or artists. For them, the competing demands of family and work will always be difficult to resolve. But when we compare our conditions for happiness, most of our lists would share these essentials.

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The women who don't desire these things - those who like living alone or who find perfectly fulfilling the companionship of their friends and cats, or whose work eclipses their need for family - may be sincerely happy, but they should not be confused with the average woman.

The Roper Starch polling firm has asked American women every few years since 1974 about their preferences for marriage, children, and career. In 1995 the poll showed that the majority of women - 55 percent - hope to combine all three, and a full quarter -26 percent - want marriage and children but not a career.

Unfortunately, for nearly 30 years, the public policies and individual ways of life that feminists have encouraged, and the laws they have pushed through, have been based on their adamant belief that women want more than equality with men or options outside their families; they want full independence from husbands and families.

And this is where ground zero of the debate is today. It's not about "going back" - as if that were even possible. Nor is it about whether women should have to make a Sophie's choice decision of work versus children. It's about the best way to realize our aspirations - all of them.

To do that, we have to begin by rejecting the ingrained feminist assumption that for most of us happiness is something that can be achieved independently of men and family.

The feminist wisdom so many of us received growing up - to delay marriage and children, to put everything into our work - may help us achieve good jobs, but little else. It's harder to meet and attract men in your 30s than in your 20s; it's more difficult to start families later in life, not to mention extremely inconvenient to have to deal with a newborn in mid-career. It's also very tough, in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, to find men willing to marry and take on the responsibilities of family when there's a big supply of single women out there willing to sleep with them without demanding commitment in return.

I propose that we do go back - at least in one sense - to the idea of early marriage and motherhood. Contrary to feminist wisdom, if a woman today marries in her early 20s and has children soon after, she is not condemning herself (if that is the word) to a life of domesticity like her grandmother. She is instead settling her personal life early, when it is easiest to do it, and freeing herself up for a career (if that's what she chooses) when her children are older. And if enough of us are willing to do this, we also shut down the system of no-strings-attached sex that has so benefited men and injured women.

Feminists will of course reject this idea, but that's because they insist on taking an androgynous view of the sexes, in which the only way we can maintain women's equality is if we do precisely the same things and occupy precisely the same roles in life as men, whether it's changing diapers and taking out the garbage or fighting fires and going into combat. The moment a woman admits to wanting to be a wife, or to care for children, she is seen as somehow letting down the side. But these desires persist, intensely.

But as so many of my generation have found, while independence might be nice as a young single woman, it's not so nice as a single mother or as a single 40-year-old. And if we want to change our situation, we may not need to go back but we may have to begin looking back, honestly, at some of the ideas we rejected in favor of the often hollow freedom we enjoy today.

*Danielle Crittenden is the author of 'What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman' (Simon & Schuster). This article is reprinted from the winter 1999 issue of The Women's Quarterly, a publication she founded.

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