In and Out of Women's Lib

Hear out a mod domestic story: uncommon yesterday, tomorrow (possibly) a norm. The theme is the subtilization of a marriage. The action, as befits domestic tales, is undramatic, a matter of shifts of inward understanding of self and family that alter the quality of one couple’s shared life. As for the characters—

Call them Robert and Eloise, picturing (as you do) an academic male, decent, ectomorphic, and (as Eloise) a round-faced, comely woman with a hint of the quality—unillusioned humorous intelligence?—and a lot of the looks of the Comtesse Daru in the Erick Gallery’s David portrait. Mid-thirtyish, parents of three, this couple make their home on the campus of a well-heeled Maryland hoarding school where Robert works as assistant head and senior history master. Change entered their lives two years ago, when the couple decided that Eloise (a Smith graduate) should finish the required education courses and begin a school career.

The idea was Robert’s; it occurred to him after Eloise took on the school farmer’s allegedly “slow” twin boys in math and French—friendly gesture— and watched them soar from hopeless “Phase 2” to college-bound “Phase 4.” The decision wasn’t lightly arrived at. Eloise was reluctant. She thought (a) that there was an element of faddishness in moms racing back to the labor market; (b) that amid a pack of undergraduates in a strange university she might begin feeling old and why did she need that? (c) that it was pleasant to read and think what she wanted, instead of being pushed around like a child with assigned papers, reading lists, and the rest. Were they doing this just for money?

Robert, however, was “supportive and cooperative,” and from the day of the plunge, they realized their decision made sense. If the seminar leaders at the university were dull (they were regrettably so), Eloise’s fellow students were fresh and argumentative, the ed psych readings often focused on behavior Eloise recognized and had opinions about, and talking the issues through with Robert markedly improved dinner-table conversation (the children, indulged too long as fixers of talk levels, learned to listen).

In addition Eloise made an interesting acquaintance and thereby confronted Women’s Lib. Francine (the acquaintance) and Eloise were of an age, but resemblances ended here. Francine lived alone, was bringing up an eleven-year-old son by herself, worked in the ed dean’s office, took graduate courses in economics and math, and was active in the local “cell.” She was assertive, with a scoffing, hard-edged note in her voice and a steady confident expectancy in her glance, as though no matter what words you spoke to her, you would only confirm an earlier, private understanding which she’d arrived at independently. And, most serious difference, she thought of her life in terms foreign to Eloise—as a pliant set of circumstances, a stuff that had no inherent shape, no inevitability, no a priori conditions, forms, conventions, structures, no facts that had to be dealt with on their (as opposed to your) own terms.

Eloise at no moment, either in the relation with Francine or in her Women’s Lib dabblings, saw herself at the edge of a personal transformation or breakout. She pressed for information (“things to read”), felt Francine’s force as a person, grasped that Francine’s seriousness rested on a hidden foundation—perhaps not the standard substructure of feminism—that could nevertheless be turned into words and considered, and was worth considering.

Eloise’s attitude toward The Cause was never negative or carping, but it was touched by skepticism. As this or that sister named real grievances, Eloise was nagged, even amid sympathy, by a notion that the girl might be rating her gifts and deserts too high, or was rebellious in the style of Robert’s psychologically troubled, schoolboy Weathermen, or simply lacked the ability to sustain any human connection. Eloise’s detachment, her tendency to take up a critical-evaluative posture vis-à-vis Francine and the others, sometimes struck her as treacherous. Francine didn’t taunt or bait her, none of the girls probed the texture of her life, the Lib cell sessions she attended centered on plans for a free day-care center, no silent Quakerish pressure for “conversion" oppressed the room . . . and yet Eloise did not feel in good faith in their midst.

by Benjamin DeMott

Oddly, a comparable discomfort bothered her in this period whenever she and Robert talked at length on the subject. For a while it didn’t occur to her that duplicity figured in her reporting about Francine or her first few Women’s Lib cell meetings. Her way of speaking communicated her responses in their fullness, so she believed. She felt—well, that the meetings were interesting. There was extravagance in some of what was said—in the head of steam or hatred occasionally worked up for The Oppressor. There was also considerable self-congratulation and a surprising history of passivity. Why had they put up with what they claimed to have put up with in the past? Eloise wondered aloud to Robert. How could they have been such pussyfooters, afraid of their own shadows, and so on? At the cell meetings the fiercest speaker about men was a girl who also belonged to one of Eloise’s seminars. And in the seminar the girl was cowed, seemingly terrified by a male teacher who in neither mind nor manner was truly intimidating.

But, Eloise would say, at the same time the factual side of the complaints was impressive. The factual side, she “noted" reasonably to Robert, did seem undeniable, and this was, at the very least, interesting. After a month or two, though, her casualness and condescension, her willingness to respond to Robert’s questions about whether a lot of clykey types weren’t the ringleaders and so on—all this came to seem to her improper if not deceitful.

And the twin discomforts—ambiguity before the cell sisters, and a sense of disloyalty before Robert— at length had an effect: she and Robert fought one night, no warning signs beforehand and more ferocity in the air than they’d known before.

It was Robert’s “fault,”in the sense that he introduced the subject which became disputed ground. He was neither facetious nor dogmatic at first. The children were in, husband and wife were having coffee in front of the fireplace, and Robert commenced to explain that he’d been thinking about The Issue (Man versus Woman) and that he had a theory; he wondered whether the key wasn’t really elementary. His idea, as it turned out, was creditable, a product of above-average imagination, concern, earnestness. He’d been reading a magazine piece about a child-rearing experiment at Harvard conducted by Professor Bruner and others. The part that fascinated him had to do with a typology of mothers constructed by careful observers, trained psychologists and researchers in pediatrics, whose aim was to assess maternal talents. Robert had been especially struck by a description of a genius mother —skillful, gifted, marvelously apt at teaching infants, developing her children’s perceptiveness, increasing their capacity to interpret experience. Robert read a snippet to Eloise from the description of the woman—an account of her manner of communicating the concept of (and the word for) water to a babe-in-arms as mother and child passed a fountain in a cab.

And thereafter, perhaps just a shade heavily, Robert elaborated on this theme. The truth was, he said, that to know what to do in such situations, as the mother knew, required Mind—from which you could conclude that, properly conceived, mother’s work was no mere affair of diapers and toilet bowls but something embodying intellectual challenge.

And it’s not their fault that they can’t see it, Robert added hastily, noticing that Eloise was shaking her head. He naturally assumed that Eloise assumed that he was going to “blame” women— blame Francine, whom he had yet to meet, blame the others in the “interesting" group. Robert assumed this was why Eloise shook her head as he spoke; he held up his hand forestalling interruption and tried to make his point clear.

He wasn’t bringing up the research thing in order to justify some sweetness-and-light sermon about creativity and Earth-motherhood. Not at all. He had in mind saying the exact opposite, namely that women’s obliviousness to the nature of the job they were doing was inevitable, given their education. Who, Robert asked with a slight and nearly convincing lift of indignation, who taught a mother what her true work consisted of? Where were the intellectual and imaginative as contrasted with the sentimental and utilitarian dimensions of the labor made clear? What besides pots and pans did they teach in these stupid home ec courses? What did Dr. Spock offer in the way of nourishment to intellect? All he ever said, as Robert could recall, was: Don’t worry, don’t fret, don’t think, follow your instinct, and sleep well. What a travesty! What blasphemy! How could a mother be satisfied with a job thus presented? Everywhere—in novels, ads, on TV, movies—everywhere mothers were shown as ninnies, people who love love love and cope cope cope. Could anybody be blamed for not wanting to live his life on those terms?

Robert had achieved good volume and intensity when he noticed that Eloise was still shaking her head. He was irritated by this observation. He was spurred on to point out—not unirascibly now, for had he not after all made an effort to perceive, acknowledge, and celebrate the dignity of women’s work?—he was spurred on to remark about the prevalence of the fantasy that males never did dirty work, never faced unpleasantness or boredom on the job. Grading goddamn weekly quizzes week after week, year after year, the same asinine mistakes, sly guesses, and attempts to deceive. Robert hoped Eloise didn’t think there was a moment when dealing with other people’s vanity and shibboleths and fatuity and irresponsibility didn’t bug him and make him want to scream for independence. If she had that crazy idea in her head, if she—

Robert was rising now to a threatening tone (“Better get it out of your skull and come into the real world ”), but Eloise interrupted. She told him he missed the point. He didn’t understand. She told him site was finished with the Lib and hadn’t meant to be in it in the first place, never belonged. But her reasons weren’t his. She believed these people made a fundamental mistake. They thought women were the most oppressed people and they weren’t, and women had certain compensations they denied, and the cell was nonetheless turning away from real oppression (blacks, poor people) and that to her was the crucial thing—maybe she could understand the rest of it but not that. But as for Robert’s “key ”—no, it meant he didn’t see what they’d been getting at.

Oh, yes, oh, sure, she acknowledged, his strategy was swell. Brilliant. Dress Mom up, make every mother sort of an assistant pseudo-psychologist, give her a bit of scientific patter about teaching infants, brain facts, eye facts, linguistics. Very clever. Did he actually think that went to the heart of anything? It was Band-Aids, mere Band-Aids.

They were waking the children now. Robert was furious. He was furious partly at her parody of his proposal, partly because she was out of her known, familiar character. But Eloise wouldn’t be shouted down. She repeated that he didn’t understand. He was denying women choice—choice was the key. Choice was what they didn’t have. It was the culture, it wasn’t men. It was history and the way things were; there weren’t any villains, but there were roles and slots and models, and there was terrifically less openness on the girl side: she was conditioned growing up, the world for her was ever so much smaller, less various. And what was Robert’s proposal intended to do but just ratify that, make it more palatable? Couldn’t he see he wasn’t one bit less oppressive—well, not oppressive, she didn’t mean to say that. But continuous with what existed, no change. It was all the same, more of the same thing. Could he really not see that?

Small potatoes, obviously, as a marital brawl. A modest scrap. “It takes patience to appreciate domestic bliss,” Santayana said; “volatile spirits prefer unhappiness.” Robert and Eloise didn’t prefer unhappiness, worked to restore bliss, and, to repeat, in the sequel they did alter their shared life. En route to the improvement, Robert “read up the subject.” At the weightier end the materials provided ranged from The Second Sex and John Stuart Mill (“On the Subjection of Women”) to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (that book proved to have an appendix drawing the parallel between beliefs about black people and beliefs about women), from Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (suggestive account of the emergence of status differentiation among men and women and of the development of women as a form of property) to a twenty-year-old essay by the sociologist Everett Hughes on “The Marginal Man,” which included among other observations, this:

The traditional roles of neither woman nor Negro include that of physician. Hence when either of them becomes a physician the question arises whether to treat her or him as a physician or as woman or as Negro. . . . On their part, there is the problem whether, in a given troublesome situation, to act completely as physician or in the other role. This is their dilemma.

On the less tasking side the material included issues of Protestant denominational magazines, issues of Life, Look, the New York Times Magazine, the Village Voice, Ramparts, and a dozen other popular publications, a file of Women’s Lib newsletters from Boston and New York cells and subgroups, an article in the London Sunday Times called “The Third World War: Women Against Men,” a mimeographed forty-page single-spaced essay called “Toward a Female Liberation Movement,” in which two Southerners argue that women must leave existing radical organizations and fight their own battles first.

There was amusement—occasionally guilty—in this reading project. Robert grinned at the determination of Women’s Lib writers to eschew euphemisms and gentility when discussing sexual matters. (Making love was invariably called “screwing” in official movement prose.) The heavily stressed black power/woman power analogy led to funny borrowings and coinages. (Accommodators and temporizers within the Women’s Lib movement were spoken of as Aunt Thomasinas.) The names of fringe groups or cells within the movement were often piquant. (A Boston cell is called Bread and Roses: “women operatives” picketing a Massachusetts shoe factory in the late nineteenth century bore signs that read, “Give us Bread and Roses.” And there was the famous New York liberationist society called SCUM—Society for Cutting Up Men, and the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, called WITCH.)

The scope of the effort to break old habits and assumptions in sexual matters also made Robert smile. (“We have got to stop throwing around terms like ‘fag,’ ‘pimp,’ ‘queer,’ and ‘dyke’ to reassure men of our absolute loyalty to them,” wrote a Judith Brown in one 1968 paper on Female Liberation. “This is the language which helps to insure that each man has his female slave and that each woman eventually becomes one.”) And while Robert felt the humiliating force of remarks addressed to would-be women radicals in student and black militant organizations, he was too “conditioned to keep a completely straight face. (In 1964 Stokely Carmichael held publicly that “the only position for women in SNCC is prone.”In the Columbia student rebellion of 1968 a male leader in occupied Fayerweather Hall demanded that the girls in the place volunteer for cooking duty.)

And there was also much that caused Robert depression—the rigor of the resistance, for example, to so-called enslaving sentimentalities about motherhood. Was it not pointlessly, pathetically reductive always to speak of having babies as “dropping children"? (“I think we can defer dropping children on cultural command. . . .”) Was it not needlessly fierce to equate affection between the sexes with pure fantasy? The London Times essay, pro-WLM, reported:

“We’re tired of talking about sex,” said [Boston] WLM leader Roxanne Dunbar; “the subject of orgasm doesn’t come up at our meetings. Sex is just a commodity, a programmed activity, it is not a basic need.” At least until after the revolution, the . . . group advises women to look to their comrades for an affection which does not depend upon fantasy and false eyelashes. “And if, despite all this, genital tensions persist,” they advise in an article called On Celibacy, “you can still masturbate.”

Robert never did adjust, furthermore, to the vision of the male workday as a continuum of excitement. Over and over again, echoing the thesis of The Second Sex, Women’s Lib writers declared that “a woman’s role as a wife and [as] the socializer of children acts as a stunting influence upon her creativity,” whereas a man’s role in the job world liberates his powers:

. . . men are encouraged [wrote Laurel Limpus in This Magazine is About Schools] to play out their lives in the realm of transcendence, whereas women are confined to immanence. This simply means that men work, create, do things, are in positions of authority, create their own histories; whereas women are confined to the home, where their function is not to create, but to maintain: Women keep house and raise children.

And he was equally hostile to the WLM practice of tracing every form of social and cultural malaise to the single source—“enslavement of women.”

But if his reading persuaded him that WLM rhetoric and propaganda were often as shrill and naïve as those of SDS pamphlets and papers, it also showed him the inadequacy of his own previous understanding of the issues. And it was Eloise’s point about choice—amplified, reiterated, intensified in the literature of the movement— that ultimately defined his mistakes. It mattered, to be sure, that wage scales were hopelessly unfair (women earn 60 cents for every dollar paid to men in comparable jobs) . It mattered that the causes regarded as central by NOW (the National Organization for Women)—among them, expansion of child-care centers, and abortion repeal—were, in his view, just causes. It mattered that the swiftest glance at any list of Women’s Lib projects in a newsletter —a course in elementary car repair, a project to circulate information about good and bad gynecologists, a course in Women and Their Bodies, classes in karate, formation of a church group to help with “problem pregnancies”—quickened awareness of the variety of modes of “arranged” womanly defenselessness.

And it mattered too that everywhere in Women’s Lib writing, you came on bits ot unacknowledged evidence about how it went “back then,” early in the marriage, for the Young Mother—while the complacent Young Father winked away the truth:

What hits a new mother the hardest is not so much the increased work load as the lack of sleep. . . . If you have never been awakened and required to function at one in the morning and again at three, then maybe at seven, or some such schedule, you can’t imagine the agony of it. All of a woman’s muscles ache and they respond with further pain when touched. She is generally cold and unable to get warm. Her reflexes are off. Site startles easily, ducks moving shadows, and bumps into stationary objects. Her reading rate takes a precipitous drop. She stutters and stammers, groping for words to express her thoughts, sounding barely coherent—somewhat drunk. ... In response to all the aforementioned symptoms she is always close to tears. . . . This lack of sleep is rarely mentioned in the literature relating to the Tired Mother Syndrome. Doctors recommend to women with newborn children that they attempt to partially compensate for this loss of sleep by napping during the day. With one child that may be possible, with several small ones it’s sort of a sick joke. This period of months or years of forced wakefulness and “maternal” responsibility seems to have a long-range if not permanent effect on a woman’s sleeping habits. . . . Long after her last child gives up night feedings she is still waking to check on him. . . . Enforced wakefulness is the handmaiden and necessary precursor to serious brainwashing. . . . A mother is embarrassed by her halting speech, painfully aware of her lessened ability to cope with things, of her diminished intellectual prowess. She relies more heavily than ever on her husband’s support, helping hand, love. And he in turn gently guides her into the further recesses of second class citizenship.

But above all it was the idea of conditioning, the creation by glances, gestures, nuances of talk beyond counting of the classic “female pathology,” that moved Robert on from his simplicities. The Lib Movement was rich in documentation of the conditioning processes. Writer after writer rummaged in her past, hunted out childhood details with a bearing on the making of modern femininity. Vivian Gornick wrote in the Village Voice:

I grew up in the certainty that if my brother went to college, I too could go to college; and, indeed, he did, and I in my turn did too. We both read voraciously from early childhood on, and we were both encouraged to do so. We both had precocious and outspoken opinions and neither of us was ever discouraged from uttering them. We both were exposed early to unionist radicalism and neither of us met with opposition when, separately, we experimented with youthful political organizations. And yet somewhere along the line my brother and I managed to receive an utterly different education regarding ourselves and our own expectations from life. He was taught many things but what he learned was the need to develop a kind of inner necessity. I was taught many things but what I learned, ultimately, was that it was the prime vocation of my life to prepare myself for the love of a good man. . .

How did I learn this? How? I have pondered this question 1000 times. Was it really that explicit? Was it laid out in lessons strategically planned and carefully executed? Was it spooned down my throat at regular intervals? No. It wasn’t. I have come finally to understand that the lessons were implicit and they took place in too different ways, in a continuous day-to-day exposure to an attitude, shared by all, about women, about what kind of creatures they were and what kind of lives they were meant to live; the lessons were administered not only by my parents but by the men and women, the boys and girls, all around me who, of course, had been made in the image of this attitude.

And Mrs. Gornick and numberless others rendered this conditioning with remarkable fullness for Robert—and, to his credit, he saw. He grasped the meaning of a blinkered youth, understood that the first “inequality" was in the range of openness to possibility, and that, in his own world of unconscious assumptions, domesticity was still somehow felt not as an option among options for women, but as a dictate of nature, a form or law preceding individual variation and retaining its force no matter how often or successfully “transgressed.”

As for the sequel: no major behavioral changes. (This tale cannot gladden revolutionaries.) The marriage of Robert and Eloise was not radicalized. Robert didn’t contribute funds to the women’s commune building campaign, he didn’t divide the housework with Eloise, didn’t sign for hours in the child-care center. The habit of interdependency and of humor and of habit itself laid its strong hand on Robert’s illumination— accommodated it to old harmonies, fitted it to past affection and need. What happened was simply that husband and wife came at moments to hold the idea of marriage in their mind differently, changed their relation to an area of life once frozen in cultural (unexamined) form. Robert and Eloise catch themselves often, of course, returning to staleness and routine. They assent without thinking to some commonplace assertion of “prejudice” against women or of shock at youth’s contempt for marriage. They slide off into standard-form, ready-made understandings.

But they also on other occasions interrupt themselves; they touch a fresh intuition of marriage as a creation, a human invention; they perceive woman’s “natural” domesticity as in truth a decision, an act deserving a decent rung in the hierarchy of conscious choice. In a word: Robert and Eloise now inhabit, from time to time, a world in which the separateness of women’s work and mens isn’t divinely ordained, any more than femininity (softness, lovingness) and masculinity (hard, cold) are given, like The Law. They have ventilated their experience, acknowledged arbitrariness: they’ve looked out on the face of possibility and neither blanched nor run.

from which what follows? Trust Women’s Lib, impossible for it to do harm? Trust the steady, even good sense of loving mates, it cannot be overmatched?

Too beamish. The abstract, damnation-dealing fury of some Women’s Lib cells does indeed resemble that of Weathermen gatherings. And, as may as well be acknowledged, a dozen irrelevant frustrations pump energy to that fury. This girl married a dull man, this one a mean man, this one a loafer, this girl grew up timid and found her tongue only at thirty-five, this girl lacked touch with children, this girl mistakes her Phi Beta Kappa key for permanent intellectual distinction, this girl’s a compulsive scrubber, this girl had too few desires and too little humor and too much lust for madework to relish the rich freedoms of a subsidized life. This girl shuddered all her days before people who (if she but had spoken) would have delighted in her very voice. Within women thus afflicted, the new revolutionary rhetoric nourishes resentments and self-deceptions that are worse than ludicrous or pitiable, for they damage children’s lives as well as parents’.

But it’s one thing to ante up these concessions, and another to join the male chorus of mockers that has lately begun to swell. The case is that the Lib idea has great honing powers—and whether or not marriage is, as the wise man said, the only adventure open to the cowardly, it plainly ought to have an edge. And an edge sharpens when unconscious assumption is confronted, and when truths of possibility, both the risks and the promise, come clear, in a word, there’s a loony fringe here as elsewhere on the Mod Scene—and there’s also a notion that can be well used: not a weapon, not a nostrum, but a means of opening ourselves, locating the “competing models,” sounding the depth of our still insufficiently acknowledged personal responsibility for the terms of our daily life.