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Overcoming perfect nails and stunted ambitions

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  • Ian Pitchford
    Overcoming perfect nails and stunted ambitions Reviewed by Selina O Grady Sunday, April 18, 2004 ... Necessary Dreams Ambition in Women s Changing Lives By
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 18, 2004
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      Overcoming perfect nails and stunted ambitions

      Reviewed by Selina O'Grady Sunday, April 18, 2004


      Necessary Dreams

      Ambition in Women's Changing Lives

      By Anna Fels

      PANTHEON BOOKS 320 PAGES $24.95

      The Secret Life of Sororities

      By Alexandra Robbins

      HYPERION 372 PAGES $23.95

      "Manicured nails are of paramount importance for the finished look": a housewifely nostrum from the 1950s? No. This is advice to the aspiring sorority pledge in 1999 as she buys her designer wardrobe and puts herself through various inane humiliations. All this to get into the sorority house of her choice, where, instead of putting the world to right into the small hours, she will preen, drink too much -- and make the plumber's life a misery. "Sisters," seeking to keep their weight down, throw up so often that the drains require frequent attention.
      When journalist Alexandra Robbins, a former staff member of the New Yorker, went undercover as an undergraduate student to follow the lives of four sorority women, she saw a vision of conformist/consumerist hell so dreadful that her book, "Pledged," might have been better as an article rather than a full-length book. We have only so much patience with these spoiled, silly students whose existence is devoted to hunting for dates, preparing for dates, partying and sex -- with the right frat boy, of course.

      Why do these college girls blithely take on the superficial role that feminists have fought for decades to escape? A pessimistic answer comes from evolutionary psychology: Woman-nature demands devotion to the task of getting your man.

      Feminists typically suspect evolutionary psychology for its conservatism: If behavior is mostly determined by nature, women's lot cannot be changed. Though the conclusions of evolutionary psychology may be unpalatable (and sometimes crude), they lead us to a fundamental question for feminism: How much does nature determine gender roles? It is a pity, then, that psychiatrist Anna Fels never acknowledges its centrality in her book, "Necessary Dreams," her investigation of why women's ambitions are stifled and why women therefore find work problematic.

      Recognition, Fels argues, shapes our ambitions: We usually do what others praise us for. Without recognition, women will abandon or downsize their goals. But women are persistently denied, and deny themselves, recognition for their workplace achievements (a very different matter from the ready attention that sorority sisters get for their appearance and sexual availability). Why? Because of a conception of what it means to be a (white, middle-class) woman. We are meant to be the subordinate nurturers, giving good recognition, not getting it. According to Fels, women fear the loss of their sexual identity if they abandon their subordinate role to compete with men at work. So terrifying is this prospective loss that even the most successful women apparently prefer to deny their achievements.

      But can women really be so in thrall to a concept, one that Fels herself optimistically sees as becoming outmoded? How we arrived at this idea of femininity, why it is shared by men and women, how it got to be so powerful, Fels doesn't say. Evolutionary psychology at least has the advantage here of basing its explanation not on the power of an idea but on the complex constraints of reproductive and child-rearing needs.

      Perhaps Fels prefers to make the idea of femininity central to explaining women's behavior because ideas are more malleable than natures. It becomes a particularly convenient explanation of the conflicts felt by working mothers with children, for whom, claims Fels, the pressure to conform to the stereotype is greatest. This is why many mothers bow out of the testosterone- filled working world, while those who do persevere feel fraudulent at work and true to themselves only at home. Here it seems almost perverse to ignore the exigencies of our bodies. Clearly, there is social pressure to be a "good mother." But could it be, as evolutionary psychologists argue, that those women who smash their heads against glass ceilings, and those uneasy jugglers of careers, nannies and children, are struggling not just against stereotyping but at least in part against their own natures? Fels deals with this too briefly: Look at the malleability of New Man, see how women can be masculine when with women -- all observations that don't really help her case. At issue is not our malleability but the cost to ourselves of the remolding we attempt. That depends on what bedrock of nature there is.

      Obviously there is nothing unnatural about women working. We have always worked. But maybe our nature places constraints on the way we work; the tugs of children may always discomfort us when we work outside the home. We might just want to accept this. Alternatively, we could contest what gets approval under advanced liberal capitalism. Curiously, Fels is optimistically progressive about our ability to change human nature but surprisingly unradical in her resigned acceptance of the rich world's values. Yet are most jobs really more interesting and valuable -- and more emotionally fulfilling -- than bringing up the next generation?

      Paradoxically, this question has implications for both the left and the right. For the left it implies changing society's values. For the right, it implies putting women back in the home. But we have to confront the possibility that maybe, for a certain period of our lives, this is where we are happiest. .

      Selina O'Grady is a San Francisco writer.

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