How Did Rebels Become Stepford Wives?

They have professions. They have their own money. They are attractive and are at an age that, in men at least, is considered the prime of life. They are put-together, poised, admirable. And then their men take up with younger or more pliant females and we get out the old evolutionary psychology textbooks and say, Well girls, that’s the way it’s always been!

Back in 1972, when she was our national nymphet visiting Hanoi and inspiring “I’m Not Fonda Jane” bumper stickers, nobody could have predicted that before her 60th birthday, Jane Fonda would defend cosmetic surgery and then ditch her career for her man.

In 1972, when she was a Yale Law School superstar wearing coke-bottle glasses and annoying Virginia Kelly because she just wouldn’t slather on the blue eyeshadow, it was unthinkable that in the future, Hillary Rodham would be standing next to, around, by her own philandering man, just like Tammy Wynette.

In the late 1970’s, when Donna Hanover was getting her masters degree in journalism at Columbia, or when she several years later launched herself as a TV news anchor in Miami, did anyone foresee that she’d be snuffling and quavering in front of Gracie Mansion two decades later, trying to recreate a career and restore her dignity?

How did this happen? Feminism wasn’t supposed to mean brokenhearted women in middle age. Love has been the Achilles’ heel of feminism all along. And we’ve been denying it so long that nobody believes it when they see it.

Whoever believes H.R.C. wasn’t deeply in love with her husband and that he broke her heart a long time ago and repeatedly has never read Shakespeare. The Faustian bargain she made was to sell out her romantic life for power. She didn’t marry the guy for power! The presidency was her emotional payoff. This cold bargain protected both her household and her power base but she was wounded-literally, and probably for good.

Just as with Georgette Mosbacher, who began the 1980’s with a powerful Republican Cabinet member as her husband, entered a stage of financial and political independence for herself but still cannot avoid expressing her injury at his sudden departure-love and power have an uncomfortable relationship.

It was the early 80’s when Tina Turner got back on the charts with “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”-right when working women like Hillary were getting derailed by love. They-and really all women-were making subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in plans. We all metaphorically moved to Arkansas, changed jobs to be near the guy, and of course, had some kids.

But feminists married to prominent men also had to remake themselves as other insurgent leaders in American society have had to do. In order to win they’ve had to pass. Out went the coke-bottle glasses and flats, in came the hairspray and pumps.

Politics and life don’t always reconcile. Not wanting to risk marginalization in America these public women needed-as public men do-to be attractive, acceptable, amenable. They went into the retail business-and their product was themselves.

Hillary Clinton’s style transitions don’t need repeating here. The changing hairdos are the stuff of legend. Like many women, H.R.C. always took comfort in her own reflection when the going got tough, getting a new haircut was like snipping off bad memories and then embracing the fantasy First Lady role, like playing dress-up. She posed for Vogue magazine twice. She posed for Annie Leibovitz; the first time, she dressed in black and looked glamorous just as her health care initiative collapsed. Following the Starr Report, she posed once more for Annie Leibovitz, this time in holiday red. The photographs of her in the Washington Post Style section and WWD as she was made and remade were merely the pictorial documentation of her learning never ever to do or say anything that would make the masses angry.

As an actress, Jane Fonda’s support of plastic surgery can be forgiven as part of her show-business worldview, but as a retail feminist there’s no way she would ever tell Ted to get himself some plastic surgery, even though he must be well into Viagra territory by now. On the occasion of her 60th birthday in 1997, Jane Fonda told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Ted had a hard time adjusting to her independence. She made a clear-eyed choice about it, too. “I don’t need anybody else’s money,” she said. “I’m very self-sufficient and independent. Y’know, if I don’t like it, I can walk. And he was not used to that. It was a big adjustment, and it’s to his credit.”

But Jane knew what she was getting. Ted reportedly made his first wife cook him three meals a day whether he was home or not. And Jane willingly entered the pact, giving up her career to hang out in Georgia with “real people” and tending the hearth at Mr. Turner’s colossal Montana ranch. “He said, ‘I need you here,'” she once explained.

In the same interview, Jane talked about how Ted came from a military culture-he sent his sons to the Citadel-while she came from a “bohemian” world. “I mean it’s a yessir! culture. And I have come to respect it a lot.”

Wholesale sensibility transformation wasn’t enough. Maybe a brain transplant was in order? Now, if the tabloids are to be believed, Ted’s taken up with someone … easier.

Pepper Schwartz, author of Peer Marriage: Love Between Equals , is a University of Washington sociologist who studies modern marriage and believes the most successful marriages are those in which husbands and wives perform about equal amounts of household and money-earning work. She cautions that Jane Fonda, Donna Hanover and Hillary R. Clinton are not representative of most middle-aged women’s experiences.

“These three women married men with planetary-size egos,” she said. “They didn’t marry guys that would collaborate with them in their futures, and even though they were professional women they really modified their lives for these guys. You can’t say they started out as egalitarian relationships. The first lesson here is be careful who you pick.

“If it reflects on the women’s movement it is because it helps women think about the costs and benefits of marriage. Does a spurned woman define me as a woman? None of us wants to be in Hillary’s shoes but she is far from down and out. And no one will say poor Jane or poor Donna. This isn’t the end of the world for them. But there is the question, What are you willing to do for love? And are you still being bent into pretzels around your man? If you are hanging on because there is no script for you other than being there for your man, then you have something to think about. But that is a choice we are all entitled to make. These guys are magnetic enough that the wives put up with a great deal. It wasn’t just money or fame-these guys were unreplaceable by the women.”

Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the graduate school of Arts and Sciences at New York University and a feminist theorist. With the caveat that she doesn’t believe Fonda, Hanover or Clinton are typical, she defined four reasons why women might stay in a bad marriage: “First, kids. K-I-D-S. It is very hard to walk out if you have kids. Second is an old-fashioned virtue called loyalty to a person and to the idea of the relationship. Third, you don’t want to admit you made a mistake. And fourth is fear of loneliness, of doing something new, of having someone see your body. Women especially have that fear. Men always think their body type is O.K. The dandruff could be spilling down over the potbelly and they say, What the hell, it’s my dandruff! There is less stake in their bodies because a lapse from perfection is taken less seriously.”

Between 1992 and 1998, the number of face lifts performed in the United

States increased by 77 percent. The number of breast augmentations increased by 306 percent. The number of breast lifts increased by 296 percent. The biggest jump in numbers of these procedures occurred between 1996 and 1998-yes, curiously just when Hillary was getting scientific proof of the existence of Monica and the rest of us were looking at our men and thinking- him ?

Who is paying for all this skin-stretching and siliconing? The number of men getting worked on is rising, but a good chunk of the surgeon’s fees are cha-chinging out of the purses of professional women. I can’t condemn them since I know exactly how, once infected with female vanity as a teenager, the virus never abates. It only grows stronger with age. It is unendurable to imagine never fielding an appreciative glance again. Our small share of worldly power is small payoff compared with that loss.

But it’s a share of worldly power larger than it was, partly thanks to those women and women like them.

Feminists invented the notion that the personal is political. When an otherwise successful woman in the public eye stays married to a philanderer, ditches a career for a man or is publicly humiliated by her husband, one could say she is betraying the movement by betraying her own self-image and dignity. But feminists don’t criticize a woman who does not conduct herself with warrior stoicism. We forgive those who stave off possible loneliness at the expense of dignity. We’ve all been there.

“It is interesting that these questions are asked now, because a few decades ago she had to stay with him,” said Betty Friedan of the wives who make big sacrifices for bad marriages. Ms. Friedan was practically in the room when the first personal-is-political was uttered. “In those days, one hoped she stayed because she wanted to.”

Now, of course, we can walk. But we don’t, not always. Ms. Friedan went for the L-word too. “Don’t underestimate the power of love or the need for love or the power of a long close-knit relationship with lots of ties and bonds. There is a power to that and women can be professional and financially independent and still need it. And I think men are the same way.” Today, thank heaven, women can support themselves financially and have their own identity professionally. And they are almost as able-almost, because they don’t earn as much money-to walk out of a relationship as men are.”

But Betty, the personal is still political, right? Huh?

“You can go too far with that.”

Susan Faludi, author of Stiffed and Backlash , and one of the solitary feminist torchbearers of the generation behind these women, was disinclined to make complaint. “Feminism isn’t about keeping your man,” said Ms. Faludi, who’s working on a new book on the commercialization of feminism. “It’s about having a meaningful life in which you are doing something other than being a doormat.

“I don’t buy this view of Hillary as some sort of humiliated wife. There was a real desire among women in New York, and more generally women across the country, to see her stand up and shake her fist at her husband but if she had done that, that’s just the flip side of the traditional wife role. Raging at your husband in public is another version of being a dutiful wife. There is something sexist about insisting that women trot out their personal problems and emote over them in public,” said Ms. Faludi.

That, of course, is exactly what Donna Hanover did. When she stood out in front of Gracie Mansion and complained about Rudy’s affairs she was-as Ms. Faludi pointed out-merely playing the traditional wife role. Why didn’t she parade a man down Second Avenue instead? If there were any other men in Donna’s life we won’t hear about them. Revenge might be satisfying, but it’s unacceptable presentation.

And that’s the problem. Couldn’t they conduct themselves with a little more spite and spirit? H.R.C. and Ms. Fonda should be heroes for a new generation of feminists-instead they’ve separated themselves from their natural constituency for fear of being branded “feminist.” Ms. Faludi and Ms. Friedan said that it’s really none of our business how these women conduct themselves privately.

There’s some truth to that-except that their private lives are public, and men and women all over the country are watching them and taking notes. They become examples whether they mean to or not. And to our dismay, all three made such self-denying trade-offs. They quit their jobs for these guys! Ms. Hanover and H.R.C. grimly stuck it out when they should have cut bait and laughed all the way to the bank-or the Senate (into which Mrs. Clinton would have had a much easier entry had she been forthright from the start).

And that reported plastic surgery on Jane Fonda only gives debating points to neocons like Danielle Crittenden who says feminists lucky enough to snag husbands are morphing into desperate grayheads forced (thanks to the pill and divorce) to compete sexually with younger women for the same men.

Helen Fisher, research professor at Rutgers University, has tried to put marriage, love and sex in an evolutionary context in her several books. She says it’s only our cultural spin that makes H.R.C., Jane and Donna seem like losers. She says it’s amazing they stayed married as long as they have in the first place. Around the world most divorces happen in the fourth year of marriage because humans are biologically wired to split up when their children are just past infancy. Lasting attachment between men and women is a relatively late development in human history, associated with agrarian societies. When we were hunter-gatherers, long-term attachments were not the norm.

“In all three of these cases, the women are economically independent,” Ms. Fisher noted. “If these women had no careers and lived on a farm and their men were dependent on them to work the farm the marriages would remain intact. As women and men become more economically independent, cultural forces enable men and women to return to an ancient reproductive strategy which is serial.”

It may be, and marriage and the female self-image are two of the mysterious states among human animals. None of the women contacted responded to requests to discuss their marriages. But Lissa Muscatine, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s White House press secretary, did respond with a statement that is not only true, but for the White House, somewhat courageously reaching beyond the obfuscatory: “She considers her marriage to be in the realm of privacy,” said Ms. Muscatine of the First Lady. “I personally hope that you reflect that it is really hard for an outsider to fathom the intricacies and complexities of other people’s marriages and I do think anyone who undertakes to do that has to be viewed with skepticism.

“No one can profess to know what happens in other people’s marriages.”