She is not a character thought up by science fiction, but a living breathing product of sexual revolution
BY DONNA McCLESKEY
WRITERS and commentators all sorts are funding the subject of the new feminine role in our emerging urbanized culture to be a source of unending fascination Their projections run the gamut from science fiction to highly sophisticated sociological analyses, from New Yorker cartoons to full length books.
It is always fun to conjure up strange visions of the future; to speculate about the nature of human existence in the future is the greatest fun of all. But the "new woman" is not a phenomenon of the future at all. She is in fact already a very real presence in our midst.
The most concise way of grasping the emergence of the "new woman" is in terms of a history of images. Great thoughts and powerful deeds are necessary, of course, in order to forge those images, but as a nation, or as a culture, it is the images which are preserved arid embodied in future generations, not the individual lives with all their victories and failures. It is images at work when a new style of living comes into being, and a great deed really only makes history as it epitomizes the images of a particular culture, or as it acts to alter those existing images.
For instance, in the beginning of the 20th Century, there were many women who protested the absence of political suffrage for women, but it took the flamboyance of Susan B. Anthony to alter the image of woman which told the culture that women "just weren't interested" in political matters. But once that image was altered, the fact of feminine participation in the political life of the na tion was established once and for all. The rapid growth of participation which followed was important, but it was only a fulfillment of the image that had been established.
Clara Bow is another example. There is much discussion these days about the "sexual revolution," but we would do well to remember that there will never again be the rigid definition of feminine roles imposed by the 19th century. Perhaps there are those who would say that there were some things about Eleanor Roosevelt not easily understood as feminine traits, but every woman who has come since Mrs. Roosevelt owes her a great debt for her success in building the image of a woman with a significant vocation. The early part of the 20th Century produced a number of other heroic feminine image makers, but these few examples should serve to make the point.
Then there followed what seemed to many of us to be a retreat. Many women tried to claim a new place in society through wholesale imitation of masculinity. Marilyn Monroe moved all the way to the opposite pole where sexual attractiveness becomes the only content of femininity. There was Grace Kelly, the princess housewife of us all. And perhaps the most striking of the recent image makers was Jacqueline Kennedy. Her ability to move a whole generation back to the Victorian ideal of woman as an accomplished, polished showpiece for the male is ample testimony to her truly remarkable power, no matter how misused it may have been. Then, finally, there was the period of the veneration of "the girl," the childwoman, skipping mindlessly across stage and screen for only an instant. Now all of that is gone. The retreat has come to an end. The "New Woman" is here.
What was it that brought this new presence into existence? For a truly adequate answer to this question, perhaps we will have to await the perspective of future historians. But a signal event occurred in 1961 when an Italian doctor fertilized a human ovum in a test tube. For in principle, that event was the final end of any necessary form of biological determinism for women. In principle, no woman is ever again bound to find the meaning of her life in the propagation of the race.
The shattering implications of this thought for millions
of women do not alter the fact of the achievement. Giving birth
and rearing children is now as much a matter of free choice as
in any other vocation, whether medicine, law or interior decoration.
In time, this kind of technological advancement will
very probably be incorporated into the evolutionary development
of the race. Indeed, there are indications that this may already
be happening. For example, statistics indicate that professional
urban women tend to give birth prematurely. Yet this is no longer
a problem with the proficient use of incubators. Nor, with good
medical technology, is there a problem in the fact that, increasingly,
women are unable to nurse their children. These facts can be most
easily understood as consequences of the remarkable new levels
Evolving Sexual Differences
When we have said that the primary function of the sex distinction is no longer found in the reproductive process, this is not the same as saying that there are no sexual differences. Differences there are, but of a more inclusive, sociological nature. Sexual distinctions are culturally evolved, and every society of man or beast creates contexts which reflect biological develop-ment Probably the most significant of these evolved traits for our era have to do with those which determine the relative feminine emphasis on orientation toward the group as opposed to the masculine tendency toward individualism and combativeness
Everyone is aware of the huge collective societies which are coming into being. One characteristic which has accompanied the growth of the socialistic republics is that women have risen to positions of influence and responsibility with a rapidity rare in our own more individualistic cur' sure. In her book The Ascent of Woman, Elizabeth Mann Borgese offers a realistic picture of what such a feminine dominated cooperative society might become. She stresses the advantages that a government operated by women might possess. Many of the qualities which she describes are already with us in seminal form.
But there is no reason for us to lose the genuine selfhood that the maledominated society has brought
into being. I believe that what we may look forward
to is a new kind of society where private and public, individual
and collective values will be held in a kind of genuine and unreduced
torsion. Both elements have always been present. each enabling
the other, but a new synthesis, where neither element is dominant,
must now come into being. Those of us living today are responsible
for the shape that this new social construct will assume.
Having made the vocational decision, however, there are still a great many problems to be dealt with. For instance, there are still limitations in the range of vocational choices open to women. And more often, it is in the area of salaries that we discover prejudice remains. Both of these are really superficial problems, however, and neither will be present for long.
Deeper and infinitely more stressing are those problems which have to do with developing new family structures which will enable and not hinder full vocational participation of, women. Take, for example, the problem of mobility. When geographical changes for vocational advancement are required, does the wife end or inhibit her career to go with her husband, or are there times when the husband must make the change? Tradition no longer answers the question. It is now a matter of decision.
Even more crucial is the problem of how our society can provide adequate child services to allow women to follow a vocation without dragging along an excessive burden of guilt; for we are so conditioned that no woman can leave her children, particularly when they are young, without experiencing it. But in the 70th Century, there is another dimension to this problem. The task of preparing even the youngest sufficiently to meet the challenges of contemporary life is now one that is almost beyond the untutored capabilities of most women. The trend to push formal education to earlier and earlier years in only a tentative first response to this need. Society has need of a great deal more experimentation along these lines.
In addition, there is also the problem of the economy and maintenance of the home. Often professional women find that they still carry primary responsibility in this area, and the time is simply no longer available to them. Even with the arsenal of homemaking hardware now available, time is still required to make use of it.
I do not propose to offer solutions to all of these
problems. But I can suggest a context in which they can be dealt
with in a way much more satisfactory, and much more fulfilling
than what is now being done by most families in most situations.
The first decision which each family must make, and the one which must be determinative of all the other decisions, must be to establish the common family mission. That is to say, each family, as a family unit, must decide what task it will assume, not merely for private fulfillment, but for the sake of civilization itself. I do not mean by this that families need to share common hobbies or spare time activities. I mean that they must decide what it is that the world needs that they are going to provide, and then allow that objective to determine family structure and activity.
This does not necessarily mean that husband and wife must have a common profession, as for example, M. and Mme. Curie, but it does require that husband and wife assume vocational roles directed toward the same
objective. Now once this basic decision has been made, the questions of whether husband or wife is breadwinner, or who takes out the trash, or who takes care of the children and when, all become matters of objective necessity, not feminine or masculine pride or personal preference. For many, if not most American families, economic security and advancement are the sole criteria by which family decisions are made. Within that framework, each individual in the family then seeks to reach out for personal fulfillment and satisfaction. So long as that pattern persists, there will be no respite from the meaningless treadmill which so many families finally feel impelled to escape through divorce, either legal or functional. But even here the escape is only illusory.
Once the family mission has been determined, there comes the corollary task of developing individual but coordinated life plans for each member of the family. Not long ago, this might have ended with a plan for the number and agespacing of children, but now infinitely more is involved. In a time when society operates on a relative value system, it is necessary for parents to make clear what values they wish their children to uphold and then actively implement them, or else they will find that for all practical purposes they have abdicated their authority. Decisions about the preparation of meals, the caring for laundry, household maintenance, and a host of other minor matters also need to be made deliberately, not simply allocated by accident. Otherwise, inequities are bound to occur that not only foster. resentment but actually hinder the
accomplishment of family goals.
A Constitution for the Family
Furthermore, these decisions need to be embodied in a family constitution. In the hard work that is required to draw up such a statement for each family, it becomes clear who will fulfill the role of executive director and who will be the judge, and what will be the family policies. Of course there are no ready guidelines for the development of a family constitution. It is in the making that each family decides for itself what will be true and right for its own missional orientation. Against the structure which it must finally articulate, genuine accountability can be developed which permits objective dealing with guilt rather than the continual stewing which destroys individuals and relationships. Through an objective, structured constitution, a family is not hindered, but rather freed to do what it has decided it needs to do. Regular family meetings with an established format are necessary to plan, evaluate and maintain all that has been determined in the constitution.
As a member of the faculty of the Ecumenical Institute: Chicago, I have responsibility for teaching and for leading many meetings. Once when I proposed to a group of clergy wives that they needed to have a life
plan worked out for themselves, I was overwhelmed by the resistance I received. I received responses like "You can't plan your life! Of course I don't have any life plan. What do you mean 'plan your life'?" In reality, everyone has a life plan, whether they are fully aware of it or not. But when they face up to it, many women, even today kind that they are not capable of thinking much beyond the age of forty or fortyfive when all the children have left home. That this is so is an unparalleled waste and' a great tragedy.
As unnatural, artificial and contrived as it may seem, to draw up a family constitution and a fullfledged life plan is our only salvation in a time when all values are in the process of being reshaped. Intentionality alone can save us from drifting or floating to a premature form of living death where we kind all our desires for personal satisfaction and fulfillment are empty and pointless.
But there are dangers too for the intentional woman who is willing to plan her life and move toward objective accomplishment through deliberate, sacrificial giving of herself. I found in myself, as I confronted groups of women still wrestling with traditional roles of wife and mother, a kind of hostile superiority coming to the surface. And because I was able to spot it in myself, I have since been able to recognize it in the words and actions of my sisters who are also engaged in full professional lives But in assuming this attitude, pitying "weaker" sisters who have not yet become aware of their full potential as creative human beings, there is the risk of destroying the very thing we wish most to bring into being.
The responsibility now falls on every woman who has
become alert to her own possibilities to bring the others along
with us to a new, fuller conception of the meaning of humanness.
Our hostility cannot be denied, nor should it be. But it must
be directed toward its proper source in the tragic inadequacy
of the social structures which allows v. omen to deny the freedom
and possibility which, in the 20th Century, we can, now declare
as their birthright.
Affirming Full Womanhood
Once it has been established that a sense of significant vocation within
'the context of an objective mission for the world is imperative for every woman of our time, we are free to deal with other kinds of closely related issues. In particular, there is the problem of selfaffirmation. But we must be dear that even this must be discussed within the context of a missional decision, for otherwise it becomes merely a problem in academic or amateur psychology. Self-affirmation becomes important as it becomes an affirmation of every human being, and as it enables serve. ice to other human beings for the sake of developing civilization.
Nevertheless, modern women have a special kind of concern, for in the recent past to be a full human being has often meant simply being a full man. It is in response to this half-conscious understanding that many of us moved in the direction of masculinity. It is not an easy thing now to affirm womanhood Now this too must be done intentionally.
Of course, the most obvious single sign of womanhood is the feminine body, and as a symbol of femininity, the affirmation of the body is also an affirmation of selfhood. No woman "needs" to have a man tell her that she is beautiful, no matter how she may en joy it or appreciate it. For finally, real beauty is not a matter of arbitrarily developed social standards, but a matter of decision.
In this sense, I have known several very fat women who have decided that they are beautiful. In particular, I think of one very large Negro woman who has decided that she is a beautiful person. There is a dignity in that woman far beyond any that commercial advertisers or judges of beauty contests will ever know about. By contrast, all of us know a great many women who have had all the raw material for rich cultural beauty and who have rejected it, and their selfhood in the bargain. An occasional trip to the beauty parlor is often necessary as an affirmation of femininity, although we are all aware that toofrequent trips can also be a hidden kind of denial of beauty.
But the point is that no matter what shape or size body may have been bestowed upon us in our individual diversity, the possibility of a genuine decision for beauty is with every woman.
Having made that decision, the. question then comes as to how that beautiful body shall be used. Once the idea was that a woman should "save herself up" so that she could achieve some kind of fulfillment in the future. But now, science and secular religion have combined to give us a new image of what it means to give of ourselves. The human body is continually in the process of burning itself out. And therefore, the only question is whether we will allow it to be burned out senselessly, or whether our life energy will be poured into the making of history. It is my experience that those whose lives are richest are those who have chosen the latter alternative.
One does not give one's self away wantonly, either in senseless activity or in sexual enjoyment. Everyone is clear that "wanton" self giving is not to be defined as it might have been a decade ago when the old standards were still at least partially intact. Now only the context of our chosen life plan can give us a reference point for making this sort of decision. If, for example, you have chosen as your life model some giddy experiment, you would probably make premarital sex a foregone conclusion. But if your life model calls for some understanding of mission which you are out to build through a new image of the family, and if sex is to be a primary symbol within that family, then you may find that you have another decision on your hands
One of the reasons that the "authentic" new woman has been slow in emerging is the general cultural rejection of the power of symbols. In our haste to cast off past images, we have sometimes shorn ourselves of the mysterious power which is properly ours. Only through the understanding of the most ancient and powerful of feminine symbols will the new woman survive and kind her roots. We all have need of being in touch with the powerful
"Earth Mother" that has been handed down to us from times of prehistory. We allowed that image to become banal and benign, failing to recognize the savage sovereignty which is behind it. Ancient men knew the power of the feminine. Fate itself is named a feminine being, in which violent destructiveness is always linked with deep sustaining, nourishing power. Both kinds of power dwell in the heart of every woman, even today when she has utterly neglected their presence.
Perhaps Albert Camus was struggling with a contemporary reinterpretation of these symbols when he wrote "The Adulterous Woman." This is the story of a beautiful woman married to a coarse, crude blacksmith. After they had been married for some years, they decided to take a trip, traveling in a nearly ruined old wagon. At dark, they stopped to spend the night in a dilapidated inn. But after retiring, the woman found that she could not sleep, and when her husband at last began to snore, she sneaked quietly out of her bed, out of the inn, out to the very edge of the desert wasteland. She climbed upon the stone wall that surrounded the town in those days, and stared quietly out into the black emptiness surrounding her. And as she looked, she experienced the sensation of being raped-raped by the future- raped by the incomprehensible power of the universe itself. She collapsed on the wall. But when she woke, she got up and crept quietly back, being careful that no one would see or hear her. And mystery of mysteries, she crawled in bed once again with her crude insensitive husband.
This is Twentieth Century Woman, the "New Woman"-the
DONNA MCCLESKY is a member of the faculty of the
Ecumenical Institute: Chicago, a resident community of individuals
and families dedicated to the renewal of the Church in all dimensions
of life. Courses are taught throughout the year in order to challenge
the churched and the unchurched alike to renew their understanding
of the Christian heritage, and to implement its wisdom in practical
social concern. It also is involved in a tangible demonstration
of its insights and methods through the experimental renewal of
the immediate West Side slum area in which it is located. This
article reflects some of the kind of thinking employed in one
course entitled "Marriage and the Family," directed
to the recovery of understanding of the family as a fundamental
unit in our society.