Having It All

Leaving behind beauty myths and backlashes, three new books about women and their accomplishments share a surprising optimism.

Last fall, while looking for a video and finding Blockbuster's cupboard beyond bare, I stumbled on Turner Broadcasting's three-part television series, A Century of Women. The patriotic boxes prompted my inner voice (think Shari Lewis and Lambchop) to nag, "Go on, it'd be good for you," and I eventually, grudgingly grabbed all three tapes. Albeit predictably rah-rah, the Fonda-narrated histories of significant women and their triumphs were brought off with a comfortably '70s-era feminist aplomb. That is, the stories were recounted almost as if in a gender vacuum. Nonetheless, A Century of Women got my five male housemates and me grooving on the realms of female possibility while the Jiffy-Pop did its thing in the kitchen.

For this year's booster shot of feminism, three biographical collections that set out to probe the work-and-family question did the trick. Like the Turner series, these books opt out of the Feminist Theory chat room. In Andrea Gabor's Einstein's Wife (Viking), Elsa Walsh's Divided Lives: The Public and Private Lives of Three Accomplished Women (Simon and Shuster), and Judith Pierce Rosenberg's A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood (Papier Mache Press), an even-keeled "journalistic" ethic stands in for even the most mainstream theoretical discourse. There are no beauty myths or backlashes, no talk of seizing the metaphorical phallus or achieving "literary agency." Never overtly questioning that the criteria for worldly "accomplishment" remain a vestigial male construct, these interviewer-biographers work doggedly under the basic assumption that female success stories do exist--they simply require excavation.

This kind of "Just Do It" feminism, unhampered by critical underpinnings, is a hallmark of contemporary pragmatism. Seeking maps themselves, the three authors, all of them baby-boomer careerist wives, betray their biases with refreshing immediacy: Of course women want good marriages. Of course we want children. Of course we want to be inspired by and productive in the world outside our three-story Westchester colonials. These books are not of or about disenfranchisement; Walsh, Gabor, and Pierce Rosenberg have secured their proverbial 500 pounds and rooms of their own (and supportive '90s men to boot). They exist on the individualist, capitalist frontier, and they're wondering how to better prioritize and organize their lives so as not to shirk the opportunities for which their valorous foremothers fought so hard. With demands like these, who's got time for Julia Kristeva?

But a map is a useful thing, and in considering five 20th-century marriages in Einstein's Wife, Gabor draws one up with a hopeful clarity to it. In addition to the title's Mileva Maric Einstein, the worthy cast includes Nobel Prize-winning scientist Maria Goeppert Mayer, quirky architect and urban planner Denise Scott Brown (wife of architect Robert Venturi), icky supermom/Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Jackson Pollock's long-suffering wife, artist Lee Krasner. Gabor's style is a little golly-gee, and starting from the exclusionary and vaguely insulting premise that "strong" women tend to marry "strong" men (even going so far as to repeatedly allude to the "genius" of wankers such as Einstein and Pollock), she unfolds a disturbing range of compromises required of these wives, without any sort of aggressive revisionist agenda.

Pragmatic social critique is implicit in Gabor's versions of her subjects' stories. She illustrates by example that where men have historically retained the option of taking on a passive "helpmate" (which Einstein eventually did, to Maric's devastation), women have never realistically had this choice. Yet a woman's career options were intricately entwined with marriage decisions, for better or worse. While having a supportive husband in the same field could open otherwise barred professional doors, those doors often led to severely limited opportunities: In her later years, Maria Goeppert Mayer advised young women against marrying men of similar professional ambitions. Due to regulations regarding nepotism, she was unable for most of her married life to earn a salary while teaching, researching and giving seminars at universities where her husband also taught, and basically had to win the Nobel Prize before she could secure a regular paycheck.

In Divided Lives, reporter Elsa Walsh (who is herself hitched to "strong" man and fellow news-hound Bob Woodward) gets very personal with her three contemporary women. Though her prose is no more lyrical, Walsh's crafting of three tales packs considerably more drama than Gabor's. We tag along as Meredith Viera is initiated into and finally eaten alive by the old boy network (Mike Wallace & co.) while attempting to combine motherhood with a "dream job" at 60 Minutes. We feel the plucky frustration of Rachel Worby, a cosmopolite conductor whose identity is put through the wringer when, working what she assumes is a temporary gig in Appalachia, she falls in love with and marries West Virginia's governor. And finally, we follow every twist and turn along the traumatic career path of Dr. Alison Estabrook as she secures the hard-won title of Columbia Hospital Chief of Breast Surgery.

A Question of Balance finds Judith Pierce Rosenberg seeking to divine where maternity and children fit in the lives of 25 visual artists and writers. Her list, which reads like an NEA grant roster, includes author Ursula K. LeGuin, poet/scholar Alicia Ostriker, and poet laureate Rita Dove, among others. Rosenberg's subjects are almost all heterosexual, married to supportive men, and plying artistic trades that are nowhere near the fringe. Though she reaches to include writer Dorothy Allison's experience as the non-childbearing half of a lesbian parent couple, Rosenberg doesn't check in with anybody on the Annie Sprinkle circuit, or the countless women who struggle yet fail to work out such cozy arrangements.

Writer Joyce Maynard is the token aberrant, offering a jagged tale of a marriage for which she sacrificed her New York City ambitions and moved to the country, where she wrote a syndicated Domestics column. Ironically, her subsequent divorce effectively disqualified her as a sound authority on home and family issues and resulted in the discontinuation of her column. Despite its title, A Question of Balance is overwhelmingly weighted in favor of comfy academics, who speak eloquently of partnerships with husbands based in mutual commitment to one another's work and the welfare of the family unit.

There is a strong temptation to take these three authors to task for focusing on heroines of the meritocracy, and ignoring women who haven't yet met that sensitive partner (or never will), or whose art/science/jurisprudence has not been rewarded by the structures that be. But that would be selling short the value, however simplistic, of their cartography. What I'm saying is: Thank God for baby boomers unconstrained by self-doubt, content not to qualify, confident that these stories will help more than hurt, secure in their knowledge that critics like this one--who might conclude that these women's bourgeois privilege and faith in the power of individual creativity constitute a kind of tyranny--will someday appreciate hearing their voices, whatever their choices. And they are absolutely right.

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