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Lauren F. Winner

Still Under the Bell Jar

What has really changed for women since the Fifties

A copy of The Bell Jar has gathered dust on my bookshelf for at least a decade—that old Bantam paperback, with a black-gloved, feminine hand and a dark, dying rose melodramatically unfurling on the cover. The review quoted on the back is from The New York Times Book Review: "The Bell Jar is a novel about the events of Sylvia Plath's twentieth year: about how she tried to die, and how they stuck her together with glue." This Bantam edition was released in 1972, nine years after it had been pseudonymously published in England, and nine years after Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven and killed herself.

This edition of the novel concludes with a biographical sketch of Plath by Lois Ames. Ames tells us bluntly what, exactly, that distorting, suffocating bell jar was: "As she became increasingly conscious of herself as a woman," writes Ames, "the conflict between the life-style of a poet/intellectual and that of a wife and mother became an increasingly central preoccupation." One does not actually have to read The Bell Jar to know that Sylvia Plath (and her fictional alter ego, Esther Greenwood) cast a long shadow over subsequent discussions about how women should go about shaping their lives.

Sylvia Plath was not the only storied woman suicide of the era. A less ballyhooed death was that of Anne Parsons, gifted psychoanalytic thinker and daughter of Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, perhaps the most influential social scientist of his generation. Anne Parsons, whose essays were posthumously published under the title Belief, Magic, and Anomie, has never gained anything like the cult following of Plath (or fellow poet-suicide Anne Sexton), and indeed is almost entirely forgotten except by those who knew her, but her 1964 suicide has nevertheless been elevated to metaphor by feminist sociologist Wini Breines.

Breines's Young, White, and Miserable investigates the origins of feminism: how did a generation of middle-class girls, raised in the 1950s to be Harriet Hausfrau, turn into the bra-burning radicals who, in the 1960s, pioneered the movement for women's liberation? Breines, one infers, finds unsatisfactory the increasingly narrow focus on the "radicalization" of women via their participation in the civil rights movement and the New Left, dominant in many current accounts of women's liberation. Instead, she retrieves the premise that white, middle-class girls growing up in the 1950s were, well, miserable—a view that would be scorned as "undertheorized" by many feminist academics—and attempts to give it greater depth.

The misery of talented but oppressed females who grew up in the 1950s, Breines suggests in her last chapter, found tragic expression in Parsons's suicide. That chapter, the reward for the stalwart reader who manages to stick with Breines's otherwise whiny and unpersuasive book, is riveting. Breines quotes extensively from Parsons's writings, and, without too much editorial intervention, tells a stunningly sad story. Born in Cambridge in 1930, educated at Swarthmore and Harvard, the brilliant young Parsons won a Fulbright to Paris, where she wrote a thesis on psychoanalysis and studied with Lacan, Piaget, and Levi-Strauss. She returned to Boston and "desperately wanted to get married," but found herself too old (at 25!) and too intellectually accomplished to find a mate. She began training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, only to be dismissed two years into her program. In 1963, she was hospitalized at the Yale Psychiatric Institute, where she stayed until killing herself nine months later.

Breines convinces us that Parsons labored under "the familiar feminine conflict between work and love," and that she was, in some sense, "a victim of the … culture of the feminine mystique that considered marriage and motherhood the only legitimate goals for white women." One can go along with Breines's suggestion that many white women in the 1950s wrestled with that same conflict, and perhaps even that their "misery … was a central factor in the development of the women's liberation movement." The argument comes apart, however, in the last step: that second-wave feminism provided the solution to this marriage/work problem that had made young white women miserable and caused Anne Parsons's suicide. If only Anne had been born 15 years later, everything would have come up roses!

It's a lovely thought. Unfortunately, it's hogwash. To be sure, much has changed for women—some of it for the better, some of it for the worse—thanks to feminism's second wave. But neither the National Organization for Women nor Emily's List, never mind Planned Parenthood or naral, has provided women an answer to the question of Sylvia Plath.

The writings of Jill Ker Conway offer one example of how a woman can do intellectual work and hold together a marriage. Before settling down to write her memoirs, Conway served as a history professor and vice president at the University of Toronto, and then as the first female president of Smith College. In her first memoir, The Road from Coorain, Conway describes her oppressive childhood on a sheep farm in New South Wales: she is ground down by the deaths of her father and older brother, suffocated by her relationship with a mother who seems to have walked off the pages of Jung, and constrained by the "stereotypes of gender," a fiery intellectual expected to apply for jobs as a receptionist. Conway transcends these barriers and pursues, with dazzling success, an advanced degree in history at the University of Sydney. Still, she articulates her own version of Plath's problem near the end of The Road from Coorain: she describes a visit, in 1959, to the home of her brother, sister-in-law, and just-born nephew. "They seemed so happy in their tiny house in Charleville," writes Conway, "that my own life seemed rather empty. Its fulfillments all seemed to lie in the direction of work."

Her second memoir, True North, finds Conway doing doctoral work at Harvard, where she comes into her own. She meets and marries historian John Conway, a war hero old enough to be her father, and begins to rest easy in the skin of her intellectual calling:

I realized that I was serious about being a historian … Thirty-three might seem late for such a discovery, but a woman develops her sense of her working self on a different time trajectory from that of a man. Because society defines children as a woman's prime responsibility, she needs to clarify what her reproductive life will be, and whether she is to be single or a member of a partnership. She may be working to the limit of her capacity throughout her twenties, but, when her inner discussion on these subjects arrives at a firm resolution, her working self blossoms, and she enters a highly productive stage of life.

True North ends like a feminist fairy tale: Conway is offered the presidency at Smith, and her ever-supportive husband urges her to take it, insisting warmly, "I've had my ten years in Canada … It's your turn now."

A Woman's Education chronicles Conway's decade at Smith. She assumes her post in 1975, presiding as Smith navigates the development of Women's Studies, the rise of identity politics, and the explosion of the gay rights movement. Conway's feminism does not always sit well in Northampton; she's too radical for the old-guard male professorate, too traditional for a younger generation of feminist scholars and activists. But, a skilled politician and a guileless leader, Conway manages to build consensus, raise money, and, perhaps most critical, convince potential students and donors that all-women's colleges, far from having outlived their usefulness, are essential in a seemingly coed world.

As Conway tells it, one of her most important achievements at Smith was helping students think carefully about vocation. "I knew from my own life," writes Conway,

how intense an existential crisis settling the place of work and family in a woman's life could be … It was great to have the feminist movement of the 1970s persuading women that serious work was an important aspect of human creativity from which women had been shut out. But there was still the question of … how one filled the page that was blank in most women's life scripts about how work was to be meshed with family.

But if Conway articulates a professional women's "existential crisis" with convincing, calm even-handedness, there is something unsatisfying in what passes as her answer to that question. When she recalls a baccalaureate service at which she talked about "the double roles of women and the ways I thought they were best managed," her insights seem faintly dated. (Worried about housekeeping? Hmmph: "dust has no moral significance.") And her own life, while vaguely inspiring, does not provide much guidance either: Conway made a May-December marriage with a man who was secure enough to let her explore, develop, and become the person she needed to be; and the Conways did not have children. For most women, that model is no model at all.

Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions provides another restatement of Plath's problem. Having followed Wolf's tortured relationship with makeup (in The Beauty Myth) and eavesdropped on her adolescent sexual escapades (in Promiscuities), we now get to watch as Wolf becomes a mother. Part memoir, part muckraking, Misconceptions provides a harrowing look at an obstetric world in which prospective parents are given next to no information and physicians perform unnecessary episiotomies and C-sections just to make a buck.

Many women, whose experience has happily been quite different, will find Wolf's account overwrought, but few will be able to resist her dissection of the popular pregnancy tome, What to Expect When You're Expecting. This cheery guide, charges Wolf, is full of inaccurate information. It understate the risks of amniocentesis, "vastly overstates" the number of fruits and veggies expecting moms should eat "because the goal is to get you to eat some healthful foods," and forbids even the teeniest sip of alcohol even though studies show that pregnant women can drink moderate amounts of alcohol without harming the baby. Why? Because, says Wolf, pregnancy professionals believe a woman "can't be trusted with moderation … [G]iven the facts and left to draw sensible conclusions, a pregnant woman would veer like the sense-glutted harlot she really is into the slough of sugary desserts and the dark forest of wantonly emptied bottles of Bailey's Irish Cream."

These Jessica Mitford moments are sprinkled throughout Misconceptions, but the heart of the book is Wolf's record of her own experience of pregnancy and motherhood. She feared "losing [her] identity" once her daughter was born. Granted there is something self-indulgent about Wolf's middle-class wallowing, but there is also an arresting bravery in her bluntness: she's a good mother, she loves her kid, and yet she felt downright ambivalent about becoming a mom.

That ambivalence has to do mostly with the effects of motherhood on women's working lives. Drawing not just on her own experience but on that of friends and colleagues and on psychological studies of married couples with small children, Wolf describes a generation of "strong, progressive" women who, upon having babies, found themselves having conversations with their husbands about "whose career 'would take the hit' … always with the same outcome."

Wolf is unclear when it comes to posing solutions to this problem. Insisting that "Good politics is the bedrock of good love," she suggests that perhaps legislation is the answer. If new parents could find part-time jobs with decent benefits, if employers granted fathers flextime or paternal leave without "radically setting back their prospects," then parenting could proceed in a more egalitarian fashion and women could embrace motherhood without worrying that they were going to morph overnight from an interesting, accomplished person to a mind-numbed dairy bar. In the same breath, however, Wolf admits that most men "are never going to sacrifice a career opportunity."

So Wolf's real conclusion is that equality, as initially envisioned by the generation of women who teethed on the assumptions of second-wave feminism, is not all it's cracked up to be. "Our great romance was with the belief in equality itself," she writes. But the egalitarian, bargains struck by feminist husbands and wives, while perhaps sufficient when it was just the two of them, were not "as reliable a foundation to support the sweet, heavy weight of a baby in a new family as was the staunch adhesive our grandmothers knew all about: submissiveness, tolerance, strategy—and a mother's yielding heart." This, of course, was what sparked Wolf's maternal ambivalence in the first place. Here is the problem, the feminist enfant terrible seems to be saying. We're just sort of stuck with it.1

One book is guaranteed to leave readers feeling somewhat more sanguine. Debra Rienstra's Great with Child chronicles, Anne Lamott-like, a year-plus of pregnancy and motherhood. Rienstra and her college-beau-turned-husband decide that though it's financially irresponsible and downright impractical, they will have a third child. We read about miscarriage and labor, breast-feeding and postpartum depression. By about page ten, most readers will wish they could sit down with Rienstra and have a heart-to-heart, and most readers will also feel a little bit of awe: here is a woman who seems, profoundly, to have her act together.

But even for this professionally accomplished woman (she teaches English at Calvin College) in what looks like a pretty terrific marriage, there is a hard, depressing balancing act. Rienstra has Virginia Woolf epiphanies in which she "looks[s] around this house and suddenly realize[s] that nothing here is exclusively mine, except maybe this little table in the corner bedroom where I write." She sometimes despairs of being able to both tend to her children's needs and say anything coherent from the Calvin lecture podium. The pressures are real, yet they don't prove to be Rienstra's undoing.

There are, I think as I close this book, at least two possible interpretations, not necessarily mutually exclusive. First, maybe I should have married my college boyfriend. Second, maybe I should, in that hackneyed phrase, let go and let God. Rienstra reminds us that, though having her third child was a reckless decision, it was recklessness in God, not "recklessness in a void." And that is a lesson that applies whether you have children or not; it is the beginning of any true answer to Sylvia Plath's question.

Argument by anecdote is risky, and one would do well to remember the criticisms hurled at Danielle Crittenden before one assembles anecdotes that have anything to do with women being unhappy. Though I could fill every page of Books & Culture with relevant vignettes, all I can speak to with absolute authority is myself. I, myself, often feel just what Conway described feeling half a century ago. Depending on what day of the week you ask me, I'll put the Plath-Parsons-Conway question somewhat differently. Some mornings I'll tell you that the problem is the nature of My Work, that this Work requires that I live, ultimately, in my head, and that living in one's head is at odds with the requirements of sustained, intimate relationships. Other mornings, I will roll my eyes and say it is the men; I will tell you (with, admittedly, a touch of both exaggeration and arrogance) that most of the men I've dated wound up marrying women who don't seem to need, as it were, a room of their own—marrying women, in other words, not like me. Some days I will admit that I am being a little melodramatic, but other days I'll tell you that I feel like I have a choice, My Work or Marriage, and on those days I feel sad.

Last week I had dinner with a high school classmate, a very accomplished young woman with cover stories in major magazines and a novel already published. She's pretty, and witty, and serves a mean tennis ball. We might have talked about any number of things we have in common—religion, politics, books. Instead, we spent most of dinner talking about why we aren't married. We said things we'd said a thousand times before: maybe we'll never meet men who aren't intimidated by our rÉsumÉs; maybe we're actually crazy/repulsive/gruesomely disfigured, and no one has had the heart to tell us; maybe, only a few years out of college, we are already too wedded to our independent, writing-filled routines to make space for anyone else.

"I think," my friend said, peering at me over her arugula salad, "that it's because we're really the first generation of women … " She trailed off, perhaps realizing that every generation of American women since 1900 has said that, and every generation has been, to some extent, right. "What I mean," she continued, "is that I can't ask my mom or any of my aunts how to do this part. They all left college to get married and have children."

My response was pretty unhelpful. I told her not to expect a lot of guidance at Barnes & Noble. The books she'll find there are poignant with question marks but short on answers. Taken together, they don't offer much wisdom about how women should organize their lives. They simply demonstrate that second-wave feminism has not vanquished the bell jar. Times have changed, but the bell jar is with us still.

Discussed in this Essay:

  • Wini Breines, Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992, 2001).

  • Jill Ker Conway, A Woman's Education (Knopf, 2001).

  • Debra Rienstra, Great with Child: Reflections on Faith, Fullness, and Becoming a Mother (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002).

  • Naomi Wolf, Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood (Doubleday, 2001).

1. But Wolf's ambivalence pales in comparison with the attitude expressed toward motherhood by another confessional writer of her generation, Lauren Slater. In her recent essay, "Noontime" (in Nell Casey, ed., Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression [Harper Perennial, 2002]), about her first pregnancy, Slater looks at motherhood as she looks at everything else, through the lens of her depression. She has been on Prozac for over a decade; ssris are as necessary to her normal functioning as water. When she and her husband decide to have a baby, she goes off Prozac, and the results are disastrous—spiraling depression and anxiety, so much so that Slater contemplates having an abortion. Thanks to a knowledgeable doctor and Slater's ever winsome husband, Ben, she decides to have the baby. The doctor explains about estrogen and antenatal depression. Slater goes back on Prozac, this time with a little Lithium mixed in, and Ben assures her that, should motherhood ever prove too much for her, she can opt out for a while and simply be the baby's aunt.

At the end of the essay, Slater writes, "This is not maternal love I'm feeling … no coos or cuteness, it's saner than that, I'm sane for now, and I am not my mother … and I look at Clara and I feel the best of what a woman has to offer. I feel friendship." It is a curious solution (though an improvement over Sylvia Plath's): create the space in which you can become a mother by insisting that what you are doing is not really motherhood. One wonders what Clara will have to say about her mother when she writes her own memoir 30 years hence. And one wonders who, exactly, is raising the next generation of children. Ben Slater can't be looking after all of them.

Lauren F. Winner is a doctoral candidate in the history of American religion at Columbia University. With Randall Balmer, she is the author of Protestantism in America, forthcoming in July from Columbia University Press.

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