The Age

After feminism, it's back to the little woman

The Age (Melbourne)
Jun 09 2000 00:42:00

The modern history of women can be summed up in three sentences: Women demand equality; Girls just want to have fun; Ladies long to loll about.

Hillary Rodham Clinton remains a go-getter, clambering up the ladder, seeking gender equity, trying to shed the title she scorns, America's first lady.

But others are celebrating lady chic, indulging in the old-fashioned dress and languid behavior that pre-dated hard-charging feminism.

Women want to be rescued. Women want to flirt. Women want to shop till they drop. Women want to get married and stay home and be taken care of. Women want to carry little ladylike purses and wear acres of floral chiffon and chandelier earrings. With the lady look, matching bags and shoes are hot again. So are gloves and hats.

The new female role models celebrated in women's magazines are socialites and debutantes, matrons and princesses.

Thirty-five years of striving have tuckered women out. "You go girl!" has downshifted to "You go lie down, girl."

Ms magazine expects too much. Much better to curl up with the new Conde{AAC} Nast shopping magazine, Lucky, featuring "Shoes You Need! Shoes You'd Kill For! And Then Even Still More Shoes!" and a centrefold of row upon row of "dreampuffs" - cosmetic sponges, make-up wedges and faux alpaca powder puffs.

What an arc: from powder puffs to empowerment to powder puffs.

The June US Cosmopolitan reports on "The New Housewife Wanna-bes" - twentysomethings who dream of quitting the daily grind.

After just a few months on the fast track at her investment banking firm, Erica, 23, had a new goal: "Marry that cute associate two cubicles down and embark on a full-time stint as his housefrau."

Cosmo quotes a survey by Youth Intelligence, a market research firm in New York, that finds that 68per cent of 3000 married and single young women said they'd "ditch work if they could afford to". And a Cosmo poll of 800 women revealed the same startling statistic: two out of three respondents "would rather kick back a casa than climb the corporate ladder".

"So why has ordering sheets and stirring sauces taken on more allure than making vice-president by age 30?" Cosmo wonders. "Probably because so few career women do land an awesome title quickly. Work is, well, work - it's just not as glam as we're led to believe."

Women who used to abhor the Mommy Track now pray for it.

If twentysomethings are tired, think how fortysomethings are dragging.

Maybe women have not evolved to the point where they want to work as long as men. Or maybe they don't want to become company women on an institutional track; maybe they'd rather work for themselves than keep grasping for that elusive managing-director title. Or maybe they just value time spent with friends and family more than time spent on office warfare.

Five years ago, you would often hear high-powered women fantasise that they would love a Wife, somebody to do the shopping, cooking, carpooling, so they could focus on work.

Now the fantasy is more retro: They just want to be that Wife.

Many women I know, who once disdained their mothers' lifestyles, no longer see those lives as boring and indulgent. Now, they look back with a tad of longing. Wouldn't it be pleasant to while away time playing bridge and tennis and lunching with girlfriends and eating prawn cocktails and napping and taking the kids up to the beach house all summer and chilling the cocktail shaker when hubby's on his way home?

In the new season debut of Sex and the City, the four girlfriends discuss the appeal of firemen.

"It's because women really just want to be rescued," the ladylike Charlotte says. "I'm sorry, but I've been dating since I was 15. I'm exhausted. Where is he?"

Sarah Jessica Parker, as narrator, intones: "There it was. The sentence independent single women in their 30s are never supposed to think, let alone speak."

In The Washington Post Style section this week, an article begins: "Here's a proposition for you: Bring back flirting."

So, ladies, there you have it: Shop; Eat prawn cocktails; Flirt; Get rescued. The new definition of Having It All.

Maureen Dowd is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, where this article first appeared.

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Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.