Ironies – the results of feminism almost 30 years later

Ironies – the results of feminism almost 30 years later – Column

Harriet Epstein

Thomas a Kempis, a German ecclesiastic and writer who lived from 1380 to 1471, certainly understood life and its absurdities when he pronounced those prophetic words, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Case in point.

There were three of us, back in 1972, in the heady days of the National Organization for Women–the bra-burning era of women’s evolvement. We were all working on a consumer magazine, trying to write and unravel the changes that were coming fast and furious for women, men, and everyone. It was an exciting, energizing time for us–upper-income, suburbanite matrons. We were eagerly searching to expand ourselves and fulfill our potential. Living near each other in a tree-lined, gracious, suburban community, we were typical of women everywhere–stepping out of our insulated cocoons, ready to break free, after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had shaken us up.

I had made a speech at a meeting of the Brandeis National Women’s Committee, long before the magazine days, surprising even myself, as I tried to joke, with New Yorker-like whimsy, about our seemingly perfect life-styles. We awoke each morning, jumped into our Calvins, raced off for tennis or golf, showered and lunched at our clubs, only to return home to our scruffy, dungareed daughters, who scoffed at our mundane, prosaic lives.

“What were we missing?” I asked, as I introduced the two attractive women from NOW who had come to answer the question. “We were lacking involvement in the transformation of women,” they said. “It was time to share in the events of the world, to lend our energies and abilities to help create change.”

Yes, those were heady days for us, and how lucky we three were. Lucky to have the magazine–a vehicle to help us embark on the path to self-discovery, to enable us to unleash all our unused talents.

Though we were excited and challenged by the thought of self-actualization, we were each somewhat different in our views of the movement. Two were strong feminists, bemoaning the inadequacy of men. Though their men always appeared to be upstanding and responsible, doing everything men were expected to do, it was clearly a time for women generally to be dissatisfied and yearning for much, much more.

I, on the other hand, had some reservations about all those provocative new ideas. Hadn’t men also been conflicted, I pondered, as they faced the pressure to achieve success as husbands, fathers, and breadwinners? Weren’t they also locked into the culture that had formed them as much as it did women? So, while I thoroughly appreciated the need for the women’s goals, I couldn’t stop wondering and feeling apprehensive about where it would all lead.

Some time later, I was invited to sit in on an early men’s consciousness-raising group, where a number of searching men had gathered to try to understand the changes in their wives and see if they themselves could evolve. It was a revelation to see these sensitive guys sharing ideas. But as I sat, taking notes for the article I would write, disquieting thoughts hit me again. Would women really be happy if men gave up their once strong, leadership personas and became softer, gentler, like this group?

Confusion soon erupted, accelerating rapidly. Women moved on to begin the job of self-fulfillment, and divorce increased to an incredible rate. Everyone was becoming more preoccupied with him- or herself. Books began flooding the market, giving permission to do just about anything that brought total happiness. And, almost simultaneously, the sexual revolution was granting greater permission to do whatever supplied instantaneous pleasures. Remember Plato’s Retreat? And what about Essalen and the supposedly healing sexual weekends that experts were promoting, all in the name of feeling and experiencing?

But no one seemed too disturbed about the consequences. No one, I thought, but me. I continued to be anxious, while most everyone, including my two buddies, remained more gung ho than concerned.

The ironies progressed as we each moved on in our lives, dealing with what I believe were actually three revolutions: the “women’s,” the “sexual,” and the “me too.” Here’s what happened.

The strongest feminist, a photographer, quickly aligned herself with women’s groups, traveling all over with them, educating herself, and taking photos at their meetings. She soon left home and family so she would be more available to concentrate on her work. When she moved to New York City, she created a bit of a stir among her friends and neighbors, who were saddened and puzzled by her behavior, for she had left two children. She’d always been a devoted wife and mother.

Finally, after she was mugged and robbed several times, self-fulfillment didn’t look so tantalizing. Luckily, she was able to return home in just enough time to salvage everything before it was too late. I questioned her, one day, as we sat on the lawn of that beautiful home she had run from, asking her why she had come back. “Could I support all this?” she asked, as we both sadly acknowledged the grim realities. Today, she once again enjoys a comfortable, upscale life, continues her career, and is probably very glad she returned in time. For her, the destruction of a still-functioning family was fortunately avoided.

The second feminist, an accomplished writer, continued growing and improving in her work, gradually achieving notable success as a columnist, earning the recognition she had so eagerly sought. And, oh, the grand irony! The husband she had always derided became the key to and star in all her articles. With wit and humor, she learned to use him to great advantage, as she cleverly joked about all his once-irritating idiosyncrasies. She was now artfully helping people laugh and identify with human frailties and life’s realities. Yes, she, too, had salvaged her marriage, without serious trauma, and furthered her career much more.

And what was the fate of she who had persisted in her empathy for men? How did life treat me, the lady who had always suffered with trepidation about the repercussions of those three revolutions? Perhaps you’ve already guessed. This poor, trusting, searching soul was divorced from a thirty-four-year marriage by the man for whom she had made excuses, wanted to understand and stay with forever. Irony of ironies, I alone was the one who became totally liberated and free.

So, how have things been for me, the liberated, free lady who fate had befuddled? I’ll tell you. It’s been tough and adventurous, difficult, challenging, and interesting. This formerly one-man woman and supporter of men changed radically and became an adventurous single. It was painful at first, but I gave myself total permission to bury guilts and jumped right into the contemporary society. Soon, all the misadventures I had once cautioned my young daughter about became an accepted life-style for this aging single.

Now, let’s review the situation. My friends thirsted for independence; I had it foisted upon me. They sustained stability and security; I wound up with adventure, many varied experiences, and freedom. To my amazement, I soon discovered it was possible to care for more than one man. Fate had offered me a bonus and, suddenly, I found that it was possible to enjoy sex with someone other than my former husband. All the years of anger and frustration at my inability to avoid a divorce I didn’t want were canceled out by a host of new possibilities.

And about those three revolutions–did they make any of us wiser, more satisfied, better able to deal with life’s vagaries? Did we three succeed in fulfilling all our potential? For my two friends, who can say? One thing is fairly certain: each of us may have questioning moments. Perhaps they sometimes think they envy my new life; I certainly have moments when I miss theirs. Surely no one is happy all the time.

But happily, we can all remember the delicious wisdom of that all-knowing philosopher Auntie Marne, who cautioned: “Life’s a banquet, but most of the poor SOBs are starving to death.”

Harriet Epstein is a freelance writer and lecturer who has worked for many magazines in the New York area.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Humanist Association

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group