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Feminist rhetoric turned on its ear


WASHINGTON -- This indicates just how out of joint the times are: Human nature is startling news.

Asserting that there is a human nature has become a radical political act, which today's feminists stigmatize as reactionary. This troubles Danielle Crittenden not at all.

A 35-year-old writer and mother of two, her new book, "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman," is written with the verve and wit she brings to editing the Women's Quarterly of the Independent Women's Forum. She says that feminism's androgyny project fails for an intractable reason: It is unnatural.

Today's feminism manifests liberalism's utopian streak, its aspiration to rid life of necessity. Feminism's grand dream is to escape the bonds of anatomy and refute the idea that biology is, in any sense, destiny.

Ms. Crittenden sides with the anthropologist, Lionel Tiger, who says, dryly, that if biology is not destiny, it certainly is "good statistical probability." Ignoring probability brings punishment. Feminism, having established that women are human, forgot that they are women, with distinctive desires, the ignoring of which causes unhappiness.

Ms. Crittenden, who must be a glutton for punishment, has immersed herself in women's magazines. She notes that they portray 1990s women as "even more miserable and insecure, more thwarted and obsessed with men, than the most depressed, Lithium-popping, suburban reader of the 1950s." The magazines' mood swing since the euphoria of the 1970s reflects, Ms. Crittenden concludes, "the inevitable outcome of certain feminist beliefs."

The new woman

One belief is that women should seek not just equality, and options outside of the family, but full independence from husbands and families. Another belief is that women should strive to lead lives identical to those men live. A third belief, Ms. Crittenden says, is that traditional divisions of labor between husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, make women "unequal" and sentence them to domestic servitude, beehive hairdos and loss of the vote.

The serpent in the garden of modern life is sex, improperly understood. Improper understanding often begins with sex education that ignores the fact that "men and women, by the very nature of their biology, have different, and often opposing, sexual agendas."

Often taught by gym teachers (perhaps, Ms. Crittenden says, "to keep the topic safely within the realm of the athletic and away from the romantic"), sex education is stripped of ethical context but crammed with moral messages: "When our health teachers told us to watch our cholesterol, it was because they expected us to eat, and when they warned us to 'use protection,' it was of course because they expected us to have sex." Resultant promiscuity has benefited, and formed, today's "inconstant, immature men," who have less sexual incentive for constancy.

A wedding present

Ms. Crittenden's deeply humane book, two copies of which should be given as wedding presents to every couple, is a plea for women to be less preoccupied about their "identities." Instead, they should "develop an appreciation for the mutual, if differing, contributions we make to marriage as man and woman," and for the different compromises arising from sexual differences, especially compromises involving careers.

Why, Ms. Crittenden wonders, have so many mothers concluded, in America's richest era, they have "no choice" but to work? Why has taking care of one's young children come to be considered "a perk of the rich, like yachting"?

Women who ignore the wisdom that "we can have it all -- but we cannot have it all at once" comprise a "secret agony society." Weary women trying to "balance briefcase and baby" are failing to convince themselves that "quality time" is a substitute for lots of time. They go to work to escape domestic worries, but instead are consumed by them.

This is because of an "explosive" fact denied by dogmatic egalitarians: "The most animating aspect of motherhood -- that we love our children more than anything else and want to be with them as much as we possibly can." That stubborn fact could not be obviated by universal day care headed everywhere by a Mary Poppins.

A typical woman will live 80 years and work 40 of them, but will have young children for perhaps only eight years. So Ms. Crittenden argues against delaying marriage and children. Having a spouse and children rescues an adult from living "the introverted existence of a teen-ager into middle age."

She recommends a progressive and, today, radical act: marrying early and promptly having children. They are "one's connection to eternity" and demonstrate "that we have loved and been loved, and brought into this world life that will outlast us." Not bad compensation for postponing a career.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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