Women Growing up to Be 'Girls'

Suzanne Fields

4/20/2012 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Rosen vs. Romney is not exactly high noon at the Powder Puff Arena. But it provides an insight or two in the gender games at the center of the culture: Trendy lesbian working mom, a public relations strategist raising adopted children, attacks traditional super mom for staying home to raise five sons.

This is not exactly a rumble in the jungle or the thrilla in Manila, but the way it's hyped, you might think it's a fight that would frighten Muhammad Ali, a thriller if not for the ages at least for this news cycle.

Rosen vs. Romney is supposed to be another battle in the mommy wars, but it's not. There's little to add to the argument of working mother vs. stay-at-home mom; most any woman will tell you that she can do whatever she pleases, depending, of course, on her finances, her abilities and her personal psychology. Few people any longer judge a woman by her decision, now that we know the trade-offs. If stay-at-home moms express sympathy for the career woman who is stressed to the max and misses the day-to-day domestic milestones of her children, the fatigued full-time moms joke about "drowning in the car pool." Life is not fair for anyone.

The actual conflicting choices for women today are wrought by a new set of problems quite outside the arena where Ann Romney and Hillary Rosen live. They're privileged mature women who have cultural supports, financial assets and educated abilities to prosper in the paths they've chosen. The controversy revives debate over the question that stumped Freud and continues to perplex all of us, whether we like it or not: "What do women want?"

The feminine mystique is long gone, but so is the militant feminism of the 1960s that insisted that only work defines the female. Feminists know how wrong Betty Friedan was when she described the traditional woman's life as a life lived in a "comfortable concentration camp." For many working women, there's more than a little nostalgia for breadwinning fathers who take pride in the responsibility for the family. There's renewed appreciation for full-time mothers who had time to nurture independence in their daughters.

Pop images reflect the changes and choices without the gloss. The much-maligned "Ozzie and Harriet" have given way to harried women who have trouble finding a man to take responsibility for anything, even for himself. If "Sex and the City" added a patina of glamour to the lives of sexual revolutionaries in high heels and high fashion, pop culture has morphed into "Girls," the hip HBO drama reflecting 20-somethings so overwhelmed by responsibility thrust upon them by triumphant feminism that in one episode a young woman lies on a gynecologist's examination table longing to be diagnosed with AIDS. She imagines that would liberate her from burdensome ambition, accomplishment and accountability.

Ann Roiphe, in a Newsweek cover story about the fantasy life of the overworked working woman, asks: "Is there something exhausting about the relentless responsibility of a contemporary woman's life, about the pressure of economic participation, about all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world?"

"Girls" may be nothing more than the latest edgy soap-opera characterization of the lives of millennial women, but it delves into the specifics of the dreary lives of privileged young women growing up in a world of male descendency. If the show were written by a conservative woman, it would be sneered at as moralizing punishment of women's liberation. Instead, it's hailed for its authenticity, wit and accuracy, unpleasant as it is, in exposing the lives of sophisticated young women who graduate from college and discover that coming of age in the covens of Manhattan is not necessarily so hot after all. The island is awash in limited career and sexual expectations.

"For all the talk of equality, sexual liberation and independence, the love lives of these young women are not much more satisfying than those of their grandmothers," writes Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times. "Their professional expectations are, if anything, even lower."

The generation just ahead of them is a world where women who still dress for success have found different problems that come with feminist achievement. In her book "The Richer Sex: How Women Became the New Breadwinners," Liza Mundy observes how men flee from competition with women. Men quickly exit the professions women choose: "The women pour in, and the men drain out." As women collect higher degrees, men fall content with the lower rewards of indolence.

It was always a myth that the personal is political. You can't legislate intimacy or emotions. For every political action there's a reaction, and not necessarily the one we expected. Hillary Rosen found that out the hard way.