The Feminine Minefield

At the Super Bowl party we attend every year, our charming

hostess had arranged card tables in the living room where wives unenthralled

with the prospect of four hours of football could play Scrabble. At first,

armed with our superguy drinks-beers and whiskey, no white wine-everyone

gathered convivially in the den. But then there occurred a gradual winnowing

out among the female guests. A few jocks among us, as versed in the intricacies

of the sport as any man, remained in front of the television, while the others

divided up the Scrabble letters.

What was I to do? No fan of football, I nevertheless haven’t

kept up my Scrabble skills, and have forgotten (if I ever knew) all those

little two-letter words essential to serious game meisters and mistresses.

After the first quarter, I looked in on the other women with the thought of

sitting down at the card table, but quickly retreated. Hunched over the board

were four of the brainiest women I know-and at least three of them are smart 19

or 20 hours a day. The fourth has been known to slack off now and then and

giggle in hen-party fashion. But for Pete’s sake, it was Sunday evening, the

end of the weekend, down-time. No way was I going to go up against these female

combatants who made the Ravens-forget about the Giants-look like wimps. I

preferred to hang out with the guys and listen to dumb jokes and catcalls,

watch the home team go down the tubes (giving inordinate pleasure to the rest

of the country, no sweat off my back).

When we reintegrated at half-time for chow and further

libations, I asked my friend J., the occasional goof-off, how the Scrabble game

had been.

“Oh!” she said, her eyes gleaming. “That was fun!”

“Did you win?”

She paused. “Almost. But that wasn’t the point.”

Oh, sure. Like winning isn’t the point of the Super Bowl.

Sometimes, when my brain

cells are tired, I feel like benching myself, but then I chafe at my spectator

status. In this era of the smart woman ascendant, what’s a poor girl who’s only

smart four hours a day to do?

I blame my slacker side on the Southerner in me-think long

lazy afternoons under the old mimosa trees, gossiping, idling, drinking iced

tea. True, I never much liked iced tea, and I was always more driven than

decadent, but it could be a latent thing. For a while, I hoped I would be cured

by analysis. I thought my inability to be productive and creative 24-7 was some

sort of deep Freudian ambivalence, a will to failure, a fear of competition, a

desire to have and keep friends by remaining an underachiever, a female thing.

And maybe it is. Competition is still relatively new to

women-that is, competition not for men but for status and professional

recognition. Someone speculated that women can’t deal with failure because they

never played competitive sports, but I think we know plenty about failure. Male

and female, we were all at least partial failures in the early and

all-important Oedipal struggle, pint-sized rejects from the marital orbit of

our parents. Males develop compensations in the form of grandiose ambitions and

Master of the Universe self-images to obliterate earlier humiliations. Women

devise sneak attacks, different strategies for coping with the demons that

woman-on-woman rivalry unleashes-stress being just another name for the

intensified and heightened stakes of working in a world in which, as a result

of the influx of women and the sheer quantity of talent, the bar is so high

that nothing less than one’s continuous best effort will do. There’s no place

to hide as we try to cope with deadlines and family and socializing, needing

the latter more than ever as the time for it shrinks.

We break lunch dates for work, then wonder if it was worth

it; we play poor-little-me to our friends, complain of being blocked, being

overworked, being exhausted-all to propitiate the gods and neutralize any envy

that success might make us incur.

We writers downplay good fortune and deflect compliments

because we know we’re allowed just so much of the goodies that go around. If

we’ve been loved and accepted, or just tolerated, in one role and at one level,

and if we suddenly shift, veering too high or too low, there’s hell to pay. Of

the proverbial threesome-home, love, career-a woman’s generally entitled to

make a go of two out of three, in a modest way, but only one if you’re on

display. The hatred of Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts, already

a target for nanny problems, went through the roof when she was recently

catapulted to Acting Governor as she is about to give birth to twins. The taboo

against combining motherhood and executive authority has to do with a

separation of powers-men dictate, women lactate-that may be out of date, but

prejudice persists that motherhood is a full-time job.

In tennis, I’ve seen the

drama acted out over and over again at all levels of play: women terrified of

losing, but also of winning, because of the loss of companionship, of equality

and rapport that comes with rising above the crowd. In a game of singles

between roughly equal players, if one woman streaks ahead, she will almost

certainly tank, in an unconscious bid to shrink the uncomfortable gap-a kind of

empathetic losing. Serena and Venus Williams haven’t yet become the dominant

duo we expected because they haven’t sorted out their relative roles. They

can’t bear to beat each other, but losing is even worse. Hence their refusal to

make tennis their only priority, their insistence on other interests, their

ducking more tournaments than they play-a way of avoiding the issue,

dampening the sibling rivalry in a contest where only one of Richard and Oracene Williams’ daughters can be No. 1.

Opting out of the success game isn’t an option, but staying

in isn’t easy. We want to remain together: not get too far ahead of our

friends, nor fall too far behind. One of the dividends of aging is that we

begin to see competition not as a barrier, but as something that binds us together.

For all the anxiety brought on by new roles and challenges, women’s camaraderie

has a zest and down-in-the-trenches complexity that comes from encompassing

more of life than was possible in our mothers’ time.

Having an opportunity to express ambitions and earn respect

in areas untested until now, we may already like ourselves-and our sex-a little

more.