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Women Under the Influence : PRISONERS OF MEN'S DREAMS: Striking Out for a New Feminine Future, By Suzanne Gordon (Little, Brown: $19.95; 324 pp.)

February 10, 1991|Linda Mathews | Mathews, editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, is the mother of two boys and a girl

The Gulf War has forced Americans to confront what many might prefer to ignore: the consequences of feminism. Suddenly young women as well as young men are being dispatched to foreign battlefronts. Motherhood no longer carries with it an automatic exemption; on U.S. military bases, there are children, some too young to walk, with both parents on duty in the Gulf. And although women are barred from combat by federal statute, the line between combatant and noncombatant is a fine one.

Suzanne Gordon, author of "Prisoners of Men's Dreams," a provocative if sometimes maddening survey of modern feminism, probably would argue that American uneasiness over the prospect of war orphans and women POWs is completely justified. Women are imperiled in the Gulf, and their children at home are under pressure, because of what Gordon sneeringly calls "equal-opportunity feminism," the notion that men and women must live by the same rules.

"Equal-opportunity feminism," which preaches that the basic goal of the women's movement is to eliminate the barriers that keep women from competing with men on an equal basis, is a disastrous doctrine, Gordon argues, that has caused women to forget why they wanted to be liberated in the first place.

Gordon calls herself a feminist, but a "transformative feminist." Most feminists lost their way, Gordon contends, because, once they had a taste of success in the "masculine-dominated marketplace," they abandoned what she regards as the movement's original goal: transforming the workplace, making corporations more humane and promoting a more generous and caring public policy that takes into account the differences between men and women. Instead of working for a more compassionate society--presumably one that would not ship the mothers of newborns to Saudi Arabia--she says women have concentrated on infiltrating the boys' club, adapting to male rules and pursuing wealth and power.

Gordon acknowledges that women have made great progress by all the usual yardsticks: They have moved into occupations previously closed to them, pulled down bigger salaries, sometimes scrambled into policy-making positions. But the cost of this success has been too high. Women not only find it harder to fight the battle for equality--here Gordon points to the "glass ceiling" and other forms of overt job discrimination--but they are losing the battle for balance in their lives.

"In today's world, where the fast track has become the only valued track," Gordon writes, "many women are finding that reconciling working and caring is impossible. Rather than being gratified by our many successes, too many of us are haunted by our compromises. . . . Our lives are run by the clock and so severely regimented that we have no time for friends, family, children or community."

Many young women, she says, so identify with their male superiors and colleagues that they utterly disdain child-rearing, homemaking and the other caretaking activities that women, even working women, have traditionally shouldered. Because the pressure to adopt male values, to play by male rules is so strong, Gordon says, women risk "becoming the prisoners of men's dreams" instead of fashioning their own.

Sometimes Gordon goes to extremes to prove her case. She blames the exponents of "equal-opportunity feminism"--identified here as Betty Friedan, the editors of "Working Woman" and "Savvy" magazines and the authors of dress-for-success manuals--for everything from overstressed preschoolers to underpaid nurses and teachers. I was reminded, uneasily, of the Moral Majority, which holds America's working mothers responsible for juvenile delinquency, falling SAT scores, drug abuse and the decline in church attendance.

And Gordon's portrait of corporate America as a place where relentlessly striving, emotionally detached male executives and their "female clones" methodically suppress the masses makes me wonder if she has ever worked in a corporation (or perhaps read too much Marx).

Still, Gordon's central point--that women have been changed by the workplace more than they have changed it--is on the mark. The "National Care Agenda" she advocates--cutting the defense budget, increasing funding for schools and health care, reducing the work week and so forth--is well-meaning though unlikely to find an appreciative audience in the middle of a war.

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