The New Retrochicks Let Men Off the Hook

It’s getting to be unseemly, this spectacle of born-yesterday babes elbowing each other and their elders out of the way to grab the media spotlight and stretch their 15 minutes of fame. Wendy Shalit and Danielle Crittenden, new media sweethearts and authors respectively of the antifeminist disquisitions A Return to Modesty and What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us , are the latest wave-makers in the conservative backlash by anti-neo-feminists who want to whisk us back to a time when men were men and women were girls who wore chastity belts. It wasn’t until I saw Ms. Crittenden in an interview on The News Hour that my middle-aged blood began to boil.

Here, being treated as sage of the week by David Gergen, was a sleek, blond and obviously successful 35-year-old Martha Stewart lookalike complaining that feminists of my generation have made life rotten for hers by exalting work over home. Specifically, Ms. Crittenden complains that feminism has “seeped into the minds of young women like intravenous saline into the arm of an unconscious patient.” The result, she argues, is women letting men off the hook by either making themselves too sexually available or scaring them off with feminist harpy scorn.

Ms. Crittenden proposes that women marry before they are 30, before the pool of available men is whittled down to “misfits and crazies,” reproduce while they are young and spry, see their children off to school and then embark on a career-presumably to start a business as she did. I’m sure this timely counsel by the author, who has a husband and two children, and is founder of The Women’s Quarterly , a women’s periodical based in Washington, D.C., will reassure all those women out there who are struggling to survive: women, married or unmarried, who work not by choice, but out of necessity; women who’ve gotten pregnant but who don’t want or can’t afford children; single women with children and little income; women who want to complete their education, and establish themselves, before settling down; women without college degrees, women working at jobs without possible advancement.

The new fem-lit celebrities have no idea how privileged they are-and I don’t just mean having a world more hospitable to women’s rights and privileges thanks to the generation of feminists before them. As young, upper-class, educated and articulate glamour girls, they are already an elite within an elite, a self-selected minority of telegenic and male-friendly spokeswomen, with sound-bite philosophies, which eliminates from the conversation a good many less pleasing and less pulchritudinous rebels and bluestockings.

Having also lamented the loss of leverage women have suffered since the sexual revolution, I’m more sympathetic to Wendy Shalit’s call for modesty, but she is hardly the first to make this point-feminists were making it all along-and she, like Ms. Crittenden, caricatures feminism in order to sanctify the extreme solution she offers as panacea.

What they both ignore is that if work outside the home has been overvalued, if sexual permissiveness has been a boon to men, it’s because of a persistent and profound double standard that discriminates against women on every level-sexual, philosophical, professional-and elevates all that is male over all that is female. This fundamental inequity persists through liberal and conservative cycles, swings of the pendulum toward and away from social and sexual freedoms. Complicit in the habit of keeping the male on his pedestal, we are loath to look at male behavior through a lens that might demote them-after all, we still have to live with the guys and prefer ones with robust egos. But do we really need women to blame women for male promiscuity when evolutionary psychologists are working overtime to justify male swinishness in the name of Darwinism? Instead of buying the view that male philandering with ever younger women is an adaptive evolutionary device, perhaps we might interpret it (as have some female scientists) as the aging male’s desperate attempt to stimulate potency via younger flesh in more dangerous situations. By placing the entire burden on women, it is not feminists but the new retrochicks who let men off the hook.

Their retreat from a feminist agenda dovetails with a suddenly fashionable nostalgia on the part of youngish power chicks who look back longingly, if sheepishly, to a world in which men courted women and picked up the dinner check, where there were balls and belles, at which ladies of leisure led their suitors in a merry dance, a world in which women felt pampered and protected and romanced. These spasms of backward yearning wouldn’t be worth talking about if they weren’t feelings we all harbored occasionally, confronted with the mixed blessings of freedom, the everlasting worries over how to allocate our time and the conflict between wanting to exercise control and yearning to be relieved of responsibility, which reaches crisis proportion in the Pandora’s box of sexual harassment. No should mean No … except when it doesn’t, when we want to be seduced out of our skull rather than take responsibility for our orgasms and their consequences.

The sexual playing field is never level, but it was a lot more uneven in the world dreamily imagined by those who weren’t there. Life was easier, perhaps, when less was expected of us and we had more fixed traditions and conventional parents to rebel against, but it was a time when women who bore children out of wedlock were pariahs; when there was almost no hope of careers outside marriage; when abortion was a back-alley affair, dangerous, shameful and expensive; when we were discouraged from displaying or even developing our minds, enjoying our physical prowess, acknowledging our sensuality, showing our stuff in any way that might threaten men.

For those few belles of the ball who wielded the heady if short-lived power of popularity, there were thousands of wallflowers and misfits, girls who were too tall or too fat, late bloomers and bookworms. We should be trying to educate ourselves to deal with new opportunities while attempting to retain values we cherish, instead of demonizing other women by taking phony adversarial positions.

It might make more sense and be less polarizing to think of the complex and ever-changing reality we live in as reflecting not so much the changes wrought by feminism as those of democracy. The principle of equality that de Tocqueville saw as an awesome and unstoppable force in our polyglot society applies no less to the eternally contentious issues dividing men and women.