The Boston Phoenix October 5 - 12, 2000

[Out There]

Femme-inism

On bringing home the bacon, frying it up in a pan, and topping it with a nice demi-glaze

by Nina Willdorf

What do you want for your birthday?" The answer used to be easy: Cabbage Patch dolls, Aerosmith tapes, that kind of thing. When my parents presented me with the question during my sophomore year in college, though, I had a ready -- and surprising -- answer: cooking lessons.

My mom balked. She, after all, had been truly offended by gifts my sisters and I had purchased at a kitchenware store.

What she didn't know then was that it was the beginning of the end. I probably personify the worst-case scenario for modern feminism. Raised with the refrain that there was no reason women couldn't have it all, I now take the green light literally, loosely, selfishly, oddly.

And this is true of many women I know: we're looking for a little mix of Donna Reed and Donna Shalala. Like feminists, post-feminists, pseudo-feminists, or even anti-feminists, we too want it all. But all includes nice kitchen knives as well as good hammers.

This fascination with the feminine is something that I usually talk about in a self-deprecating tone. But it's really not all that shameful. Truth be known, I revel in it -- eagerly, proudly, defiantly. Forget shattering the glass ceiling. These days I'm more focused on cleaning the floors, and I don't care who sees me.




I was recently discussing the phenomenon with an editor friend in New York. He said it seems as if every time he gets on the subway, there's some hip-looking woman knitting. "Knitting?" I asked. "How much more grandma can you get?" ("Uh, no thanks, can't come out tonight, gotta finish darning my socks.")

"Yeah, it seemed sorta grandma to me at first, too," he said, "but now I don't even look twice. It's everywhere."

And it is. On a recent flight from Boston to San Francisco, I was sandwiched between two twentysomething women. One was flipping through Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart Living; the other was crocheting.

Bust magazine, which boasts the tag line "voice of the new girl order," has started a weekly event that has become a nationwide fad: Stitch 'n' Bitch. A time for the ladies to get together over a meal and trade off working the fork and the knitting needle -- chatting about anything from the NRA to what's new in window dressings.

In a recent issue of Talk magazine, six prominent '70s-era feminists held forth on the New Femme-inism. The moderator was Erica Jong. In her introduction, Jong asked, "Is this new generation dangerously blasé about the hard-won rights they have been handed?" And the fearsome five (including playwright Wendy Wasserstein) nodded their heads disapprovingly, worry etched across their faces.

At one point, Heather Vincent, vice-president of programming planning at MSNBC, even asked, "Will they steal our husbands?" Knowingly, Jong said that yes, they will.

Reading that article, I felt an odd sense of power. Did these women really find my choices, my fascination with everything they had worked hard to leave behind, threatening? Clearly, they did.

I say, don't worry. I'm not honing my husband-snagging skills. Sure, I like the girly stuff, but ultimately I do it for myself. Forget the ring. I don't need it to be a homemaker.

STILL, I might feel a little embarrassed if I weren't in such good company. Demi Moore, Daryl Hannah, Cameron Diaz, and, shockingly enough, Roseanne have been spotted at Stitch 'n' Bitch sessions. And my professional friends trade more recipes than business cards.

Are these signs of a step backward? A relapse? A movement gone awry? I'd say no. I think Jong and some of her fellow second-wave feminists might even be jealous. If it's any indication of the widespread trend, some of the old guns are now joining in. Gloria Steinem, the woman who penned Revolution from Within -- and who coined the adage "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" -- has now, herself, decided to get married in her ripe 60s. Talk about revolution. Ms. Ms is now a Mrs.

Unsurprisingly, the fiery lady is taking some heat. She now has to answer for actions that speak much louder than her published words -- words like "I don't think marriage has a good name."

But all I can say is, "Right on, sister!" Losing Steinem to the other side seems, well, absolutely fitting right now. Things have changed. Martha Stewart is in, bra-burning an oh-so-cliché out. Cooking and cleaning: in. Stay-at-home dads: out. Sexy high heels in the office: in. Professional women in male-knockoff suits: do I even have to say it?




Time Magazine recently featured what its editors flagged as a budding trend: women are choosing the single life, and shrugging off the chains of marriage.

But there's another way of looking at it. Maybe they're putting off the chains of marriage. Steinem herself railed for years against matrimony, but it turned out that she was just procrastinating. And it makes sense. Why settle into the saddle at 30, or even 40, when single life -- and all the accouterments of a career -- beckon so appealingly? It's even more appealing now that "single" doesn't have to mean "militantly feminist."

For me, it's more a mix of selfishness and masochism. I'm not ready to share my life seriously with anyone. Steinem is clearly in Phase Two of the big plan. Me, I'd say I'm in Phase One: the Young Single Homemaker. I love being barefoot, tied into a starched apron, sautéing over a hot stove, and getting dinner on the table -- for one.

EVEN THE terminology has changed. Ms., girls, women. For many men, the choices can be dizzying. A few nights ago I was at a local restaurant, listening in on some twentysomething guys discussing the use of the word "ladies." One thought it was sleazy, the other thought it had appeal. I finally succumbed to the temptation to interject my self-proclaimed expertise.

"I think it's fantastic," I exclaimed. "Of course, with the right emphasis -- you know, like you wouldn't want to say, `Hey ladies,' all saucy-like." They nodded intently.

The conversation was very timely, in that all of a sudden, everyone has started calling me "lady." Not in a dirty-old-guy way, but in a plural "May I help you, ladies?" way. Somehow, it feels warm, respectful, even endearing.

Donna Reed would have loved it, and I do too. I still wouldn't try it on Gloria Steinem, though. I hear the newlywed still prefers "Ms."

Nina Willdorf can be reached at nwilldorf@phx.com.


The Out There archive