Women’s Work: the legacy of the 1970s women’s movement

Vivian Gornick in Book Forum:

BettyFORTY YEARS AGO, when the second wave of the American feminist movement was young, and its signature phrase, “the personal is political,” was electrifying, many of the movement’s radicals (this reviewer among them) went to war with the age-old conviction that marriage and motherhood were the deepest necessities of every woman’s life. If we looked honestly at what many of us really wanted, as we were doing in the 1970s and ’80s, it was not marriage and motherhood at all; it was rather the freedom to discover for ourselves the lives we might actually want to pursue. In our pain and anger at having been denied that freedom, we often turned recklessly on these conventional wisdoms. Marriage was rape, we cried, motherhood slavery. No equality in love? We’ll do without! What we didn’t understand—and this for years on end—was that between the ardor of our revolutionary rhetoric and the dictates of flesh-and-blood reality lay a no-man’s-land of untested pronouncements. How easy it was for us to declare ourselves “liberated,” how chastening to experience the force of contradictory feeling that undermined these defiant simplicities. As we moved inexorably toward the moment when we were bound to see that we were throwing the baby out with the bathwater, nearly every one of us became a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which we were to find ourselves time and again.

KATE BOLICK is a forty-two-year-old journalist who, since childhood, has harbored a fantasy of living alone and becoming what she calls a “real” writer, but, like many women of her generation, she has found it nearly impossible to pursue that dream. In a memoir, Spinster, she traces the problem to its origins. “Whom to marry, and when it will happen” are the book’s opening words. “These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

More here.