Debora L. Spar never thought of herself as a feminist. Raised after the tumult of the 1960s, she presumed the gender war was over. As one of the youngest female professors to be tenured at Harvard Business School and a mother of three, she swore to young women that they could have it all. “We thought we could just glide into the new era of equality, with babies, board seats, and husbands in tow,” she writes. “We were wrong.” Now she is the president of Barnard College, arguably the most important all-women’s college in the United States. And in Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection—a fresh, wise, original book— she asks why, a half century after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, do women still feel stuck.
Growing Up Charlie
When I was growing up in the early 1970s, there was a commercial for Charlie perfume that appeared on all the network stations. I remember it vividly, as do many women of my generation. It showed a beautiful blond woman prancing elegantly down an urban street. She had long bouncy hair, a formfitting blue suit, and a perfect pair of stiletto heels. From one hand dangled a briefcase; from the other, a small, equally beautiful child, who gazed adoringly at her mom as they skipped along. The commercial never made clear, of course, just where Mama was going to leave her child on the way to work, or how they both managed to look so good that early in the morning. Instead it simply crooned seductively, in the way of most ads, promising something that was “kinda fresh, kinda now. Kinda new, kinda wow.”
The perfume, if I recall correctly, was not particularly nice. But the commercial was terrific.
So was another of the same vintage for Enjoli, a similarly unremarkable fragrance. This one’s heroine was even bolder, strutting home in a tight skirt after an apparently successful day and proceeding directly to the kitchen. As she cheerfully whipped up some kind of dinner delight, she sang a provocative little anthem, which most women of my age, I’ve discovered, still recall. “I can bring home the bacon,” she cooed. “Fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man. ’Cause I’m a woman. Enjoli.” Never mind the perfume. The lifestyle was enchanting.
Both of these commercials aired in the early 1970s, right at the edge of Watergate and the free love of Woodstock. They aired only briefly, selling products that slipped eventually from the public eye. But they stuck somehow in the public consciousness, or at least in the minds of schoolgirls like me, who simply presumed that life in the grown-up world would be just like the ad for Charlie. We’d have careers to skip to, kids to adore us, and men waiting to douse us with perfume the moment we waltzed through the door. Money and great shoes only sweetened the package.
This wasn’t, of course, the life that our mothers were living. In 1970, only 43 percent of women worked outside the home. In upper-middle-class white families like my own, the number was slightly higher, hovering by 1974 at around 46 percent. Most of these women worked in “traditional” fields such as teaching or nursing, and they rarely wore stilettos to the job. Yet somehow, girls growing up in that era believed—thought, presumed, knew—that they would be different. That instead of replicating their mothers’ suburban idylls of parent-teacher conferences and three-tiered Jell-O molds, they—we—would go the way of Charlie, enjoying children and jobs, our husbands’ money and our own. And through it all, we would be smiling and singing, gracefully enjoying the combined pleasures of life. In 1968, 62 percent of young women had expected to become housewives by the time they were thirty-five. By 1979, just eleven short years later, that percentage had plummeted to 20. The rest of us presumed that we’d leave the world of housewifing far, far behind. In 1979, fully 43 percent of American girls predicted that they would hold professional positions by the time they were thirty-five.
Where did we possibly get such ideas?
I offer three suspects: our mothers, the media, and the feminists.
Let’s start with the mothers, since they are always the easiest to attack. Women born between 1960 and 1975 have mothers who were born generally between 1935 and 1950 and came of age, generally again, between the late 1940s and early 1960s. This was a period, in retrospect, of unprecedented prosperity and stability in the United States. Real incomes were growing steadily, and millions of Americans decamped for the suburban towns cropping up across the country. Freed from the rigors of economic depression and war, women of this generation rarely worked outside the home unless it was absolutely necessary. As late as 1955, for example, only 28.5 percent of married American women had paying jobs. The remainder basked in the comforts that their generation could now afford and raised their own daughters—my generation’s mothers—to strive for the Good Housekeeping version of the American dream: a house, a husband, 2.5 children, and a yard. Or as the poor shopgirl, Audrey, fantasizes in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, “A washer and a dryer. And an ironing machine. In the tract house that we share. Somewhere that’s green.” She ain’t exactly Charlie.
But when these girls of the 1940s and 1950s grew up to be mothers, they wanted their daughters to have something else. Something more than the washer and the dryer and the ironing machine. They wanted them, in short, to have careers, and to participate more actively in the social progress that was starting to seep through the seams of American life. So the good girls of the Eisenhower era became the pushy mothers of the Nixon era, dragging their offspring to pottery classes and poetry readings, convincing them that girls really could do whatever they wanted.
My own mother was adamant on this point. After marrying at twenty and having me at twenty-two, she was fully convinced that girls of my generation would face a fundamentally different set of options—even though she had grown up in very comfortable circumstances, graduated from college, and returned to teaching kindergarten when I turned ten. “I never had the opportunities that you do,” she would say. “I would have loved to go to law school, but there was no way my parents would ever have let me go.” And statistically, she was right. In 1961, when she graduated from Hunter College, only 3 percent of law students in the United States were women. When I graduated from college twenty-three years later, that number had risen to 37 percent. The same thing happened in medical schools, where the percentage of female students rose from 5 to 28 percent over this period, and in business schools, where it rose from 3 to 30 percent.11 So the women of my generation did indeed have all kinds of opportunities stretching beyond the green lawns of suburbia. And our mothers were chanting from the sidelines, urging us to grab them all.
Meanwhile, of course, the media were driving this fairly radical change as well, luxuriating in and promoting a new brand of American dreaminess. When I started watching television in the late 1960s, the choices were few, far between, and unabashedly wholesome: Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and my all-time favorite, The Brady Bunch. While these shows were socially more progressive than the older Leave It to Beaver fare that I caught on rare days home from school, they still portrayed a feminine ideal centered largely on the happy suburban mom. The leading women were typically full-time mothers, devoted to their school-age children and their affable if bumbling husbands. They were pretty in a well-coiffed and sensible way, and invariably cheerful. When Carol Brady and her three daughters go on a camping trip with her new husband and his three sons, for instance, Mrs. Brady smilingly prods her grumpy girls into action. “We have three new brothers and a new father,” she reminds them, “and if they like camping, we like camping!” Similarly, when the young witch Samantha hears from her husband the rules of suburban wifedom—“You’ll have to learn to cook, and keep house, and go to my mother’s house for dinner every Friday night”—she is eagerly compliant. “Darling,” she gushes, “it sounds wonderful!”
Within only four or five years, however, new figures started slipping across the TV screen, very different kinds of women who hinted provocatively at a whole new sort of post-Brady experience. Maude debuted in 1972, portraying an outspoken and strong-willed woman who married four different men (one died; she divorced two), ran for Congress, and decided, when she became pregnant at forty-seven, to have television’s first abortion. She was followed by Rhoda (1974), a boisterous single woman who manages to date, marry, divorce, and start her own window dressing business all in the show’s 110 episodes. Then came Alice (1976), a single working-class mom. 1976 also famously saw the launch of Charlie’s Angels, in which gorgeous, scantily clad women pull firearms from their bikini tops to rid the world of evil. Not surprisingly, the Charlie commercial that captured my imagination debuted around this same time (1974), as did the Enjoli ad. In fact, Shelley Hack, the beautiful woman from the Charlie ad (referred to, of course, as “the Charlie girl”) actually became one of Charlie’s angels in 1979. It was a good time for Charlie.
Even more dramatic changes were underway in the world of print media. Up until this point, women’s magazines had been a staid and comforting lot, led by long-standing publications such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. These were, to be sure, fairly serious magazines. They provided a rare outlet for female authors and dealt, at least in passing, with topics like divorce, infertility, and contraception. Their daily fodder, however, was simpler fare, consisting largely of advice on how to clean a perfect kitchen, make a perfect pot roast, or deal with a toddler’s sore throat: THE DINING ROOM IS LIKE AN INDOOR GARDEN announced one 1960 headline fromLadies’ Home Journal. FUN WITH YARNS! promised another. And then Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem smashed onto the stage, refurbishing Cosmo (in 1966), launching Ms. (in 1972), and turning the world of women’s magazines completely upside down. Because now, instead of reading about pot roast and runny noses, women could read about sexual prowess and adultery. They could learn about homosexuality (LESBIAN LOVE AND SEXUALITY), masturbation (GETTING TO KNOW ME: A PRIMER ON MASTURBATION), and more sex (THE LIBERATED ORGASM). Suddenly, playing with yarn didn’t sound like much fun.
By the time we girls of the 1970s entered high school, therefore, the world began to echo—even shout—the words our mothers had been telling us for years. In no uncertain terms, women of my generation were being told, for the first time in history, really, that girls were just as good and as capable as boys, and that women could be, should be, whatever they wanted to be.
And what lay behind this sudden bout of boosterism? Precisely the same thing that had catapulted Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem to power, the thing that had tossed Carol Brady off the screen and replaced her with Charlie’s angels. It was the feminist revolution, hatched in the late 1960s and apparently now here to stay.
To be sure, feminism itself was hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, as Estelle B. Freedman describes in No Turning Back, a history of feminism, the global movement for women’s rights had a long and complicated past, including the liberal struggle for women’s suffrage launched in the mid-nineteenth century, socialist-inspired campaigns to protect working girls and women in the early twentieth century, and the decades-long battle, led by crusaders such as Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, to provide women with access to contraception. But the feminism of the 1960s was distinct. This was a feminism that promoted not the political rights of women, or the legal status of women, but rather the very identity of women. It was a feminism that tore at the very roots of an American ideal and prescribed a whole new model in its place. As presented (and distorted) by the mainstream media, it was a feminism that was greedy to its core, proclaiming that women could have money and children and sex and power, along with fabulous shoes. Like men, in other words, women could have it all. And boy, did I want it.
The Feminine Mystique
Unlike most social phenomena, the feminism that surrounded women of my generation can largely be traced to a single event—a book, in this case, that revolutionized how society saw women and, more important, how they saw and imagined themselves.
In 1963, Betty Friedan, a seemingly ordinary housewife with a husband and three children, published The Feminine Mystique, a searing investigation of what she termed “the problem that has no name.” According to Friedan, millions of women living in the postwar American idyll were suffering from a dissatisfaction that was both pervasive and profound. Although they had children and husbands they claimed to adore, young mothers reported feeling empty or unsatisfied, searching for a sense of fulfillment that didn’t come from being “a server of food and a putter-on of pants.” Women, Friedan insisted, wanted more. They wanted lives of their own, and careers of their own, and ideas that belonged to them. But rather than pursuing their dreams, women across postwar America were routinely entrapped by the “feminine mystique,” convinced that ecstasy came in a cleaning powder and fulfillment lay in serving others.
In shaping her complaint, Friedan drew heavily on the feminists who had preceded her. Her focus on power and economic conditions, for example, echoed the critiques of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; her demand for women’s emancipation followed a line of argumentation that stretched back to Marx and Engels. But something was different about this book. It wasn’t making an academic argument, or an abstract one. It wasn’t about principles or even politics. Rather, it was written—or at least appeared to be written—by a housewife, for a housewife. It was the literary equivalent of a kaffeeklatsch, something that women could share, quietly and among themselves, in the privacy of their kitchens. Or, as Anna Quindlen recalls in the introduction to the 2001 reissue of the book: “My mother had become so engrossed that she found herself reading in the place usually reserved for cooking.”
What was it that Friedan managed to capture? It wasn’t really politics, since the political battles of feminism had been raging long before Friedan took up the cause. Indeed, fights over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), mandating legal equality for men and women, had been under way for decades. Her book wasn’t about economic power, really, or about giving women access to things like birth control or college degrees that had motivated feminists of the past. Instead, she was railing about what could easily have been dismissed as social subtleties—daily routines faced by millions of middle-class moms and the forces that had consigned them to this fate. Or, as Friedan writes in the book’s opening passage: “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”
It’s easy to imagine how such a question might well have gone unanswered. Friedan was an unknown author at the time of her book’s publication, after all, and the previous two decades had already witnessed a slow but steady retreat from earlier feminist agendas. In 1947, for example, two prominent psychologists published Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, a bestselling treatise that described feminism as a “deep illness” and warned that any woman who fell prey to its temptations was “neurotically disturbed” and likely afflicted with a nasty case of penis envy. And in 1955, even Adlai Stevenson, a leading politician esteemed for his liberal leanings and sheer intellect, centered his 1955 commencement address at Smith College on the need for educated women to defeat totalitarianism by teaching their husbands and children the meaning of love. Oh, sure, Stevenson acknowledged, Smith graduates had read Baudelaire and written their own poetry; they had “discussed art and philosophy until late in the night.” But now, faced with the Communist menace, their overriding obligation was to focus on the home front, instilling in their children a “balanced tension of mind and spirit” and keeping their husbands “Western, purposeful, and whole.” Which wasn’t, one might argue, a particularly exciting prospect.
Between 1945 and 1960, roughly 1.7 million women graduated from college, many from elite all-women’s schools. Only a fraction ventured on to graduate work or professional employment. The rest slipped silently into the vision of marital middle-class bliss. One of these women, my friend Helene Kaplan, tells a story that I’m sure could be repeated thousands of times over. In 1955, two years after graduating with honors from Barnard, she was married to a man she loved deeply. She had one infant daughter sleeping in the pram and a second, only slightly older, toddling beside. Suddenly, walking with her daughters and husband in Central Park, she sat down on a bench and began to weep. “I was only twenty-four,” she recalls, “and my whole life was ruined. I cried to my husband that, as much as I loved my girls, I had always wanted to be a lawyer.”
This was the demographic that Friedan so publicly exposed. By the time of The Feminine Mystique’s publication, Helene had already taken matters into her own hands, entering New York University Law School with her husband’s staunch support when their daughters were eight and nine, and eventually becoming a partner at Skadden, Arps. But most women—demographically speaking—needed a bigger boost. Maybe that boost could have come in another form, or from another author. Maybe the surge that Friedan ostensibly unleashed was really let loose by Kennedy’s assassination, or the U.S. civil rights movement, or the coming of age of a generation eager to depart from its parents’ ways. Yet there was something about Friedan’s pugnacious writing that seemed to strike a chord. Within months of the book’s publication, The Feminine Mystique had sold tens of thousands of copies and been excerpted in both Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s. Readers across the United States wrote to Friedan and to the magazines, expressing what one historian later described as an “overwhelming sense of relief.” In 1966, Friedan and three hundred supporters launched the National Organization for Women, pledging to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society.”
Not everyone, of course, was inspired. Many of the housewives that Friedan condemned were perfectly happy with their lot and saw The Feminine Mystique as an affront to their femininity and selflessness. Others attacked from the left, condemning Friedan for accepting the traditional structures of family and gender rather than pushing more radically against them. And many were only mildly moved, insisting, as my own mother did, that “women’s lib” wasn’t really for them. But even women who scorned Friedan’s agenda seized quietly upon one of its central premises. Even if these women didn’t themselves rush back to law school, even if they didn’t abandon their kitchens to work for equal rights, they wanted their daughters to have something else. They wanted them—me, us—to have different kinds of options, maybe even different kinds of lives. What these options looked like was never really clear. But this was the torch that Friedan passed to a generation of women, and that they then passed to the next. “Is this all?” Friedan had queried. “No,” answered our mothers. “There’s a lot more out there. You go figure it out.”
Betty and Me
I was born in June 1963—eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, four months before Kennedy’s death. It was a time of vast affluence and imminent change, a time when the cultural norms of postwar America were being shattered by wave after wave of rebellion and reform. I was too young to stay up for any of it. By the time I was even vaguely conscious, the Kennedys, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kent State had already disappeared into the past—the stuff of history books but not real life. So, too, with the civil rights movement, with Vietnam and Woodstock. Although I and my demographic peers lived through these tumultuous events, we experienced them as children and therefore somewhat vicariously. I was ten, for example, at the height of the antiwar movement. So while I remember discussing the war with my fifth-grade classmates and even writing an earnest note of protest to Richard Nixon, I was too young to be actively involved in the movement, or to fear losing friends or brothers to the draft.
Likewise, while I vaguely recall hearing about busloads of women burning their bras outside the Miss America pageant in 1968 (which in fact never quite happened as described), my more immediate concern at the time was growing into my own. And the closest I came to free love, alas, was seeing Hair on Broadway.
What I did get an awful lot of, though, was feminism. Not feminism of the fervent, hard-won sort, but a kind of trickle-down feminism, the feminism wrought by Friedan and transmitted through the cultural ether of the early 1970s. Right about the time that my own mother returned to work as a teacher, the television networks were starting to bombard American girls with that new constellation of female stars, all of whom were strong and funny, sexy and beautiful. Right about the time that I tentatively put aside Highlights for Children in favor of Time andNewsweek, these magazines were trumpeting THE WAR ON SEXISM and THE NEW FEMINISTS.” In 1972, Helen Reddy’s anthem to the women’s movement, “I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar),” shot to the top of the pop music charts. In 1973, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, adding sports to the apparently now endless list of things at which women could excel. By 1977, therefore, the year I started high school, no one in higher education would have dared to voice sentiments along the lines of Stevenson’s 1955 address at Smith. Instead, pedagogy was increasingly about equality, about educating boys and girls, blacks and whites, to tackle society’s problems together. At my own school, the commitment to free-flowing learning went so far as to entail removing all the walls between classrooms. Literally.
But if you had asked me then—in my biology class or at softball practice—if I was a feminist, I would almost certainly have answered no. Because just as my mother had denied any interest in “women’s lib,” I didn’t see any personal connection to the feminist struggle, probably because I presumed it was already over. Women had the right to vote, after all, and the pending Equal Rights Amendment.* Women had Title IX in sports, granting them equal access to college-level athletics, and could attend nearly all of the formerly male Ivy League schools. If you had pressed me harder on these points back then, reminding my miniskirted teenaged self that these rights came courtesy of the women’s movement, I might have been moved to mumble a few words of thanks. But since I had grown up in a world where women—at least on television and in the movies—had always seemed equal to men, it was hard for me to conceive that the struggle had been that tough. Ms. magazine, recall, had been around since I was nine. Roe v. Wade was decided before I got my period. And Charlie, of course, defined the modern woman.
If you had really decided to go after me with facts at that stage, I might have acknowledged that my mother was one of the very few working mothers around. And that I didn’t actually know anyone whose life even vaguely resembled Charlie’s.
But I had curly hair to iron nightly.
I had boys to worry about.
I was seventeen.
And I didn’t need the feminists.
The Feminist Critique
Regardless of my hair and boyfriend travails, though, the mood inside the feminist community during this era was understandably jubilant. In the twelve months of 1970 alone, The New York Times Magazine published a major article entitled SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL; Kate Millett, author of the bestselling Sexual Politics, appeared on the cover of Time; Bella Abzug, the feisty New York lawyer and advocate, was elected to Congress; thousands of women went to the streets to join a one-day Women’s Strike for Equality; and women working at both Time and Newsweek charged their employers with sex discrimination. After decades of fighting from the margins, feminists had burst loudly on to the main stage of American life, seizing headlines, gaining adherents, and dominating a substantial swath of political discourse. “Today women’s liberation has become a serious national movement,” announced Life. “The groups vary in every community, but all raise common themes: women are denied opportunity to fulfill their talents; traditional sex roles and family structure must be changed; women must relate in new ways to one another and to men.”
Under the surface, however, dissent was beginning to emerge. Some of the burgeoning feminist groups arrayed themselves around Friedan-like goals, lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment and for reproductive rights such as contraception and abortion. Other groups, led by writers such as Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and (somewhat later) Andrea Dworkin, argued more radically that gender itself was a function of power and that women could never be free until they broke the bonds of exploitation that men had historically thrust upon them. Taking this structural stance to its extreme conclusion, the activist Ti-Grace Atkinson announced memorably in 1969 that “marriage means rape,” while Firestone similarly argued that women needed to be liberated from the “tyranny of their reproductive biology.”
There was little room in this worldview for the relative baby steps of Friedan-style feminism, directed as they were toward pay and jobs and child care. Or, as one self-styled radical wrote, “We, in this segment of the movement, do not believe that the oppression of women will be ended by giving them a bigger piece of the pie, as Betty Friedan would have it. We believe that the pie itself is rotten.”
In another field, at another time, these scuffles might well have remained invisible. But given how new feminism was, how raw and still provocative, divisions within the feminist camp cast an undue influence on how feminism itself was publicly portrayed. National networks and newsmagazines, for example, doted on the more extreme elements of radical feminism, highlighting Firestone’s claim that “pregnancy is barbaric,” or Atkinson’s assertion that “love has to be destroyed.” More mundane stories about women working for the ERA or supporting Planned Parenthood, by contrast, rarely made headlines, creating a massive asymmetry between the sprawling contours of the actual women’s movement and popular perceptions of feminism. For women who were already in the movement, this unbalanced portrayal was a source of great contention. For those of us who were just a few years younger, however, what we saw was only the news. We grew up, as a result, with a skewed sense of feminism and a vague belief that all feminists hated men, denounced children, and refused to wash their hair.
What made this asymmetry even more pronounced was that the same media channels were bombarding us throughout the 1970s with portraits of Charlie: Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, and all those damn angels.
All of which led to the massive schizophrenia of the Charlie complex. Before we had even reached puberty, women of my generation not only wanted it all, but firmly expected we would get it: the education, the sports, the jobs, the men, the sex and shoes and babies. And how could we not, when everything around us was screaming “yes”? Indeed, so strong were these cries that we may have been the first generation of girls who could truly imagine that our lives would unfold more or less like our brothers’. Just decades earlier, a girl who announced her ambition to be a doctor or lawyer would likely have been shushed, or ridiculed, or at least talked out of her dream. By the mid-1970s that same girl would be goaded to greater heights: A doctor? Why not an astronaut? A lawyer? How ’bout a judge? It was heady stuff, and yet it had nothing to do, in my mind at least, with the feminists. Feminists were loud and pushy, strident and unfeminine. Charlie, on the other hand, was gorgeous, ladylike, and successful, a working woman and a mom. Who needed feminism if you could have Charlie?
It was of course both ironic and unfair. Because just as millions of young women like me were reaping the benefits of the women’s movement, we were racing to distance ourselves from that movement and to ignore or even deny the massive role that feminism had played in our evolving lives.
But we were teenagers at the time and—particularly if we were white and straight and affluent—too busy with our own affairs to worry about what seemed to be another generation’s long-finished struggle. So we didn’t study feminist theory or yearn to burn our bras. We took our place in the Ivy League and NCAA sports but still cherished cheerleading and beauty pageants, and we thought nothing of it.
Then, of course, we became young women, relishing all the possibilities we blithely accepted as our due. We had sex like men—meaning, at least, without much commitment—and a smorgasbord of entry-level jobs. We backpacked around Europe if we were lucky and subleased apartments of our own, barely recognizing that these were things our mothers hadn’t been able to do. We took the pill and had abortions, but we didn’t fight for reproductive rights.
And then, before we knew it, we became young wives and not-so-young mothers. We bundled our babies in nurturing Snuglis and gave them to our husbands to tote proudly around. Which worked beautifully until the child became a toddler and we found ourselves struggling with the car seat at the day care center as the sippy cup of apple juice erupted over the laptop. We reveled in the theory of shared-care parenting and then nagged our husbands endlessly to please, please remember the dental appointment. We slipped out of committee meetings to buy shark-shaped party favors and crumpled the fenders of our minivans racing between board meetings and ballet recitals. And when our mothers cooed happily about our amazing ability to have it all, we silently begged them to offer the only thing we really wanted: a week of free babysitting.
It was only when we divorced our husbands or quit our jobs or yelled at our children once too often that we finally realized what we should have known all along.
Charlie was dead.
Even worse, we realized at last that Charlie had never lived—that there was never a woman—a real woman, at least—who balanced her life and her loves and her job and her children with the panache that women of my generation believed would come naturally. Instead, as a generation, we found ourselves in middle life shockingly childless, or jobless, or stretched so thin we were about to break. Our mothers, as it turned out, had been wrong. The media had sold us a fairy tale. And all that feminism we rejected? Well, it turns out that perhaps we should have been paying attention.
Specifically, we should have noticed, not that feminism had all the right answers, necessarily, but that it was asking the right questions. That it was prodding us to think about what it meant to be a girl, and a woman, and a wife, and a mother, and about how we wanted to shape and arrange these roles into a life that worked. If we’d been paying attention, we might have noticed that while our mothers and the media were enchanting us with visions of the modern woman—powerful, capable, sexual, fertile—feminism was quietly urging a sense of caution, a warning that women could not in fact have it all. Or at least not, as Betty Friedan would herself later acknowledge, all at once.
In the end, of course, the myth of Charlie was just that: one silly commercial, capturing a particularly far-flung fantasy. It wasn’t true, and never was. But it left an indelible mark nevertheless on millions of women and girls, convincing us, seducing us with a dream of feminine perfection. We really thought we could have it all, and when reality proved otherwise we blamed—not the media, as it turned out, and not our mothers. We blamed ourselves.
Today, women and girls around the world have fallen headlong into this same embrace of blame and failure, into a stubborn pattern of believing that anything less than “all” in their lives is proof only of their own shortcomings. Rather than acknowledging that feminine perfection is a lie, we continue both to believe in the myth and to feel guilty when we—inevitably, inherently—fall short of it.
The irony of this situation is that it is precisely the outcome that feminism fought to avoid. Because feminism, after all, was about removing a fixed set of expectations from women, freeing them to be what they wanted and behave as they desired. And yet, fifty years on, women find themselves laboring under an expanded and in many ways more cumbersome set of expectations: to be good wives and workers, sexy yet monogamous, devoted to their perfect children and their own perfect bodies.
This is the unanticipated double whammy that confronts women today: the unexpected agglomeration of all the roles that society has historically heaped upon them plus the new roles and opportunities created by feminism.
So what’s a girl to do?
One possibility, of course, is to give it all up, to throw in the towel of feminism and retreat to an older and more traditional array of roles and values and norms. Under such a move (supported, not surprisingly, by a range of conservative groups), women would relinquish their career goals in favor of motherhood. They would be workers but not bosses, sexual inside marriage but nowhere else.39 They would, in other words, go back in time. At the other end of the spectrum, a second possibility would be to leap more radically ahead, urging women to strive for some of feminism’s more audacious goals—things like a wholesale destruction of the male-dominated global power structure, or a communal approach to child care and rearing.
Personally, though, as a creature of compromise, I find myself constantly attracted to the murky path of muddling through. I believe that women are entitled to be whatever they want, but that they can’t ever expect, any more than men, that they can have it all. I believe that child care should be a joint endeavor, but I suspect that—so long as women carry the chromosomes for wombs and breasts and guilt—they will tend to bear a disproportionate share of their families’ needs. I believe that women, in general, enjoy their sexuality in different ways than men, with a higher premium placed on commitment and procreation. And finally, I believe that the feminism of the 1960s and ’70s has a great deal to offer to today’s young women—particularly insofar as it urges them to focus at least a portion of their energies on common goals and struggles.
We can’t go back, of course, and undo the myth of Charlie. For it is there now, buried deep within the psyches of girls far too young ever to have seen the commercial; it exists in the ambitions of women working in the trenches of Wall Street and in the burgeoning markets of Mumbai, Shanghai, and Moscow. It lies in the tired face of every working mother who feels she has abandoned her children, and in the guilty conscience of every nonworking woman who feels she has abandoned her dreams. What we can do, however, is examine how we got to this place: how the women of my generation managed to transform the collective goals of feminism into an individualized quest for perfection; how we have become confused over time by the dazzling array of choices now available to us; and how—slowly, carefully, and with equal measures of common sense and good humor—we can begin to plot a way forward.
DEBORA L. SPAR is the president of Barnard College, a women’s undergraduate college affiliated with Columbia University. She received her doctorate in government from Harvard University and was the Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Spar is the author of numerous books, including Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Invention, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet and The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception.