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Shedding Old Light on Feminism : ON HER OWN Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream by Ruth Sidel (Viking: $18.95; 243 pp.; 0-670-83154-9)

January 28, 1990|Wanda Urbanska | Urbanska is the author of "The Singular Generation: Young Americans in the 1980s" (Doubleday: 1986). and

Young American women between the ages of 12 and 25 are ambitious self-starters who want to make it on their own, not by riding the coattails of any Prince Charming they might snare, writes Ruth Sidel in her new book "On Her Own: Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream." These women have appropriated the American dream and internalized the message that they must be active players in their own lives if they are to succeed and nail high-pay, high-status jobs.

Sidel, a professor of sociology at New York City's Hunter College and author of a noted 1986 study of the feminization of poverty, argues that this ethic is a new one and something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, young women should prepare to be self-supporting, she writes. But by buying the contemporary version of the American dream uncritically--which in Reagan's '80s took on an aggressively individualistic, success-at-any-price cast--young women may be turning their backs on traditional female sources of strength and leadership, such as nurturing and community-building, while turning a deaf ear to the needs of members of their own sex, who are disproportionately poor and underemployed.

Sidel deserves credit for placing the spotlight on a group of Americans who have been largely overlooked by the media and even by that group of middle-age feminists of which Sidel appears to be a charter member. But for all her good intentions, neither her legwork nor her analysis reveals much that's original, provocative or even newsworthy about young women today. (Sidel refuses to call 12-year-olds "girls"; they are "women.") She asks 150-plus interviewees the usual questions about sex and marriage and children and career plans and comes away with the usual answers.

"Young women of all classes talk about the need to be independent," Sidel reports. "Some quote their mothers and other female relatives who are urging them to organize their lives so that they can take care of themselves. A 17-year-old Midwestern daughter of divorced parents reports: 'My mom tells me I have to be self-secure. I don't want to have to depend on anyone.' " While these findings are accurate, they're hardly revelatory. The goal of self-sufficiency among young people--particularly young women--has been documented for years.

"Many women with whom I spoke seemed to indicate that relationships between men and women have not changed all that much," writes Sidel. Teen women are the victims of the mixed messages fed by the media and the culture at large: Sexuality appears glamorous and desirable on TV and in ads, but if teen-age women are premeditated about it (as in using contraception), they run the danger of being called sluts.

Again, this sounds consistent with all we know about the nation's teen-pregnancy epidemic, but no more. There is no poignant case history here to shed new light on the problem, nor does Sidel prescribe specific solutions to the crisis, as did Lisbeth B. Schorr in her 1988 book "Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage."

Indeed, even Sidel seems disappointed at her findings. "As if programmed, the same words, the same dreams tumbled out of the mouths of young women from very different backgrounds and life experiences," she writes. "Success was seen, overwhelmingly, in terms of what they would be able to purchase, what kind of 'life style' they would have. The ability to consume in an upper-middle-class manner was often the ultimate goal.

"The uniformity of responses is reminiscent of interviews with young people in China in the early 1970s. When they were asked what they hoped to do when they finished school, the answer invariably was, 'Whatever my country wishes me to do.' "

With such a lack of texture and variation, one cannot help but wonder if the young women gave the professor the expected answer rather than baring their souls.

Sidel might be forgiven pat, predictable and repetitious answers if her analyses were penetrating. Sadly, Sidel falls short here, as well. As she is wont to do throughout the book, Sidel poses rhetorical questions that one suspects suggest her theories without stating them. On her subjects' worldly ambitions, for instance, she wonders: "Are these young women programmed or 'brainwashed,' or are they too reflecting the tone--and the economic reality--of their time?

"Are young women focusing on material possessions in part because they are at least something to hold on to, symbols of identity and security in an era of fragmented family life, insecure, often transient work relationships, and a vanishing sense of community?"

While Sidel's sympathy for these young women is laudable, her refusal to spit it out, to spell out her theories, frustrates the reader. She is like a well-intentioned party guest with whom you agree politically but from whom you are aching to break away.

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