By Phyllis Moen
Washington Post Book World
August 6, 2000 (pg. X08)
Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, and Life in a Half-Changed World
By Peggy Orenstein
Doubleday. 324 pp. $ 25
Rapid social change usually throws individuals back onto their own resources, and leaves them scrambling to keep up by improvising personal solutions. For all their seeming grandeur, in other words, large-scale social transformations take place most tellingly in our hearts and minds.
In her new book, Peggy Orenstein charts this process in the “half-changed world” of contemporary gender roles. Indeed, Orenstein, a magazine journalist and author of the 1994 book Schoolgirls, writes that she turned to the subject of Flux out of the sense that her own life—and the lives of many of the women she knew—were in a state of flux, convulsed by a wide range of mixed messages. Tracking this sense of inner tumult outward into the world—via interviews with more than 200 women, ages 25-45 (and their family members)—Orenstein opens a Pandora’s box of contemporary dilemmas. Flux captures in vivid detail the ways the uneven quality of gender roles translates into the ambivalence that women harbor over the direction of their lives. These stories mirror the logic behind that ambivalence: new choices in a world still playing by old rules.
In the book’s opening section, “The Promise,” Orenstein describes the gap between the mixed messages in young women’s heads and the pragmatic conditions of their lives: the difficult choices for women in their twenties and thirties between a “super career” and a “super relationship,”; the fear of waiting “too long” to try to have children, the choice between remaining on a career fast track or having a life.
Orenstein’s second set of interviews, “The Crunch,” portrays the no less contradictory messages besetting women in their thirties on the path of professional achievement: “You can be anything” and “You can’t have it all.” In particular, Orenstein finds women’s ambivalence over the prospect of having children something too difficult for many to talk about, with her or even with their husbands. Yet many begin making choices to accommodate motherhood—in the jobs they take, their investment in careers and the absence of plans for the future—long before they decide to become parents. Orenstein writes that her interviews repeatedly found women using the phrase “do it right”—as in, “if I’m going to be a mother, I want to do it right.” Images of the “perfect wife” and the “good mother” haunt them, even as a fulfilling career seems the path to self-development. In fact, her own attempt to sort out the social (and parental) pressures on women to reproduce—as her biological clock encroached—was what sent Orenstein on the path leading to this book.
“Reconsiderations,” the final section of Flux, describes women in their forties reflecting upon their own sense of self, in the light of their past choices and the passage of time. Many of Orenstein’s interview subjects report that the forties are a time of reduced ambition and growing concern with the quality of life. Some stay-at-home and “mommy-tracked” moms say that a void opened in their lives after the active demands of parenting began to recede. Many also share a desire to reinvent themselves—apart from their roles as workers, wives, mothers. Single and childless women discuss the hardships of constructing lives in a social order that still regards marriage and motherhood as preordained roles for women.
Social scientists have long charted the changes in women’s lives: the record numbers entering college and the workforce, delaying marriage, divorcing or remaining single, having fewer children later in life or none at all, scaling back careers or else climbing occupational ladders at the cost of traditional domestic roles. But Peggy Orenstein captures the voices of women living these trends, stories too often reduced to mere statistics. The stories in Flux are for every woman—those whose own lives are currently in flux, as well as those watching their daughters, sisters, nieces and friends navigate this uncharted terrain. And Flux should prove just as valuable to men seeking to understand the women in their lives. Leaders in both the public and private sectors could benefit from Orenstein’s portrait of the gendered character of career paths, parenthood and the life course.
The dilemmas voiced in Flux should help to recast women’s life choices, moving them out of the domain of private ambivalence into the arena of public concern. Women themselves can never resolve the quandaries of a half-changed world, given the unrealistic templates—the Dream, the Perfect Wife and Good Mother, the Career and the Breadwinner—that shape the institutions of gender, work and family. Even as we puzzle through the changes to come, women and men alike need to combat these outmoded templates—and attend, as Orenstein’s perceptive study does, to the echoes they continue to stir in our hearts and minds.
Phyllis Moen is the Ferris Family Professor of life course studies, sociology and human development at Cornell University. She is the author of “Women’s Two Roles: A Contemporary Dilemma.”
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