Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World

Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World

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Peggy Orenstein’s bestselling Schoolgirls is the classic study of teenage girls and self-esteem. Now Orenstein uses the same interviewing and reporting skills to examine the lives of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

The advances of the women’s movement allow women to grow up with a sense of expanded possibilities. Yet traditional expectations have hardly changed. To discover how they are navigating this double burden personally and professionally, Orenstein interviewed hundreds of women and has blended their voices into a compelling narrative that gets deep inside their lives and choices. With unusual sensitivity, Orenstein offers insight and inspiration for every woman who is making important decisions of her own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385498876
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/21/2001
Edition description: First Anchor Books Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 751,535
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Peggy Orenstein is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and her work has also appeared in many other publications.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Anything Is Possible

Erin Wilson kicks off her sensible low-heeled pumps and stretches her legs. At twenty-four, Erin is a junior account manager at a large New York City advertising agency in whose conference room we are sitting. She has jaw-length wheat-colored hair, which she absently tucks behind her ears whenever she starts a thought, and is dressed conservatively in a short-sleeved yellow sweater, a dark pleated skirt, and nylons. She is one of five young women—including a social worker, a budding playwright, a finance associate, and an administrative assistant in an architecture firm—who have agreed to meet me here tonight for an evening of frank conversation and soggy deli sandwiches. She leans back in her chair as she speaks, expanding into the space around her as if to physically illustrate her point: that she, like many young women today, feels her potential is limitless. "When my mother graduated from college, the only careers that she thought were available to her were teaching, nursing, and maybe being a flight attendant," she explains. "For me the world is totally open. If I want to run a company, I can do that. If I want to stay home, I can do that. If I want to work in a corporation, if I want to be an entrepreneur—I can do anything that I want to do."

Jennifer Lyle, twenty-five, au courant in a beige sundress and small oval glasses, her blond hair long on the top and shaved up the back, bobs her head in agreement. "My mom has told me, 'God, you are so independent. I would never have done what you've done at your age.' I've lived in Europe, I moved to New York. She went from college straight to getting married to my father. She interviewed for a job once, and when they asked her what her biggest accomplishment was, she said, 'raising my three children.' There are just more options for us now."

My Mother Is Not Myself

Daughters are notoriously unreliable narrators of their mothers' lives, but their beliefs about the previous generation of women—and in particular its deficiencies—are the backdrop against which they measure their own greater expectations. If their mothers were thwarted by circumstance (although, the truth is, Erin's mother went back to graduate school when Erin was thirteen and became a successful architect), today's young women feel redeemed by possibility. Feminism has been passed down to them as an ethic of personal potential. They were weaned on the mantra "you can be anything you want to be." "My parents told me I could be president of the United States," said a twenty-seven-year-old district attorney in Chicago. "My parents always said I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do," proclaimed a twenty-five-year-old website designer in San Francisco. They graduated from college feeling entitled to the same opportunities as their male classmates. Nothing about their lives felt predetermined; marriage and motherhood seemed one among a menu of options rather than inevitabilities. Even the most conservative among them expects to take advantage of this period of unencumbered time, until recently enjoyed solely by men, in which to live independently, explore career opportunities, enjoy friends and lovers, establish the self.

But talk a little longer, cut a little deeper, and these same confident young women express something else too—an anxiety about the consequences of their new freedom. A few days after my conversation with Erin and Jennifer, I sit across town in another conference room, of a publishing house, with a different group of twentysomething women. All are ambitious, have come to the City to pursue their chosen careers. Leslie Elder, twenty-nine, who works in finance, wears a business suit and carries a briefcase. Claire Ricci, twenty-eight, an assistant editor at the publishing company, has accessorized her outfit with ice blue nail polish and eye shadow to match. Like Erin and Jennifer, these young women believe that the essential difference between their mothers' generation and theirs is the wide range of "choices" they have. "But it's kind of a double-edged sword," says Abbey Green, twenty-six, who recently moved here from Houston to work in sales. "The good thing about being able to do anything is that you can, but you could also be overwhelmed by the buffet style. There's so much to choose from that you could be totally paralyzed by it."

"Yes!" exclaims Claire. "I've got this absolute phobia about looking back and thinking, 'Shit, I picked the wrong one.' Like, I don't want to be married now, I don't want to have a baby now, but I don't want to be eight years down the road thinking, I blew it! I had every choice in the world, I could've done anything, been anyone, gone anywhere, and somehow I still managed to be thirty-six going 'I didn't get what I wanted!' "

"You know," says Leslie, "sometimes I wonder if we'd be happier living in a society where there weren't so many choices."

Among young women like these I found a longing, not so much for an oppressive past as for a guide to a murky future, a road map to contemporary female life. They may have more opportunity in terms of self-expression, lifestyle, and financial gain than women of any previous era. They may have never known a time when it was legal to discriminate against women in education and employment or illegal to get an abortion. In college at least half of their classmates were female; for those who have gone on to law school, medical school, or for graduate degrees in such fields as journalism and psychology, the same is true. Yet, beneath their boundless optimism lies a sneaking suspicion that the rhetoric of "choices" is in part a con job, disguising impossible dilemmas as matters of personal preference. As these young women look forward, they see "choices" threatening to morph into cruel trade-offs: double binds, which, along with their own subtly dual expectations have already influenced their decisions regarding ambition, sex, love, marriage, and motherhood—and could ultimately trap them in the narrow roles they're expected to escape.

Talking Gloria Steinem, Thinking Carol Brady

If for previous generations the "feminine mystique" surrounding marriage and motherhood was the trap, the solution for today's young women—and the object lesson drilled into their heads—is financial independence, or, as Erin Wilson puts it, "The message I got was be able to support yourself no matter what." Like "you can be anything you want to be," "financial independence" is an appealing buzz phrase but oddly only half absorbed. Many of the young women I interviewed thought of economic self-sufficiency as precisely that: supporting themselves, not a family, which is a peculiar blind spot in a world where dual-earner couples and single mothers are now the norm. They spoke of the work world primarily as a means to identity, to self-fulfillment and avoiding the predestined fate of women in earlier generations. Salary and economic advancement were often secondary—I wondered how, over time, that would affect their progress in the workplace.

According to sociologist Anne Machung, who interviewed seniors on six college campuses about their expectations for career and family, young women and young men typically perceive their career paths differently. Machung found that men, for the most part, considered work as a way to earn money. They were more likely than women to pursue fields that would lead to well-paying jobs, were more conscious of entry level salaries, and were more likely to have specific titles and job structures in mind as they approached graduation.

Women, meanwhile, saw work more as a vehicle of personal satisfaction. They, too, planned ambitious careers (although they tended to be hazier about specifics, such as salary), but, unlike the men, they reflexively factored inequality into their futures: They assumed that they would move in and out of the workforce and that family responsibilities would limit both their advancement and earning potential—but not their husbands'. Seven out of ten said, once married, they expected their spouses' jobs to take priority. So, well before they enter the adult world (and, perhaps, long before they'd entered college) young women were making decisions that would virtually assure that their careers would be secondary to men's and that their incomes would be lower—decisions that would, in the future, profoundly affect both their options and their leverage in organizing their family lives. They would be able to support themselves, but, truly, only themselves. As Machung wrote, they were "talking 'career,' but thinking, 'job.' "1

"It's been on my mind a lot lately that I should be more successful than I am," says Lauren Miller, who grimaces each time she's reminded that her thirtieth birthday is next month. Lauren is chatting over pizza with two friends in San Francisco's South of Market district. Hers is an artsy, socially conscious group: Lauren works as an editor for an on-line magazine. Melody Yun, twenty-nine, dressed in a leather jacket and black bell bottoms, is a fund-raiser for a nonprofit organization. Becky Schumacher, thirty-one, is an independent filmmaker who just quit her day job to finish a documentary on body image that she's been filming for five years. Lauren and Melody are single; Becky lives with her boyfriend. "Recently I went back east for a family reunion," Lauren continues. "I looked around the room and noticed all my male cousins and my brothers have really good jobs and really good salaries. And none of the women do. There's one cousin, we were born six weeks apart. He has a condo in Boston, he's made it financially. I started wondering, 'What is it?' Because we grew up with the same kind of parents, very similar in their mind-set. And I realized that all the men had envisioned themselves in those places. I think I took my career less seriously. In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'I can't get too high up, I can't have too much responsibility, because then what happens if I want to take a couple years off and have kids?' "

"Well, I never expected to get married or have kids," says Melody, "I still don't. But that idea of entitlement"—she pauses, her brow furrowing—"I really feel like men have this innate belief that things are going to happen for them, and that gives them confidence, and then things do happen for them."

"It's like guys have some 'thing' we don't have," Becky adds. It's not that she has ever felt overtly discriminated against, she says, she just has a sense that men get better mentoring, develop a stronger sense of vision about the future.

Lauren sighs, pushing her pizza crusts around her plate. "I know what you mean," she agrees, "but I end up feeling kind of sorry for men too. I mean, we think we're so pressured. They have to become something and make all this money, and they just accept that and do it. At least we've allowed ourselves self-expression. We could choose careers that are meaningful to us. We didn't have to choose based on money."

"But I wonder," Becky counters, "if your only pressure is to satisfy for your own interests, is that enough to push you to the kind of success that knowing you'll have to provide for a family might?"

Listening to these young women, I remembered debating my own career choice in the years after graduating college: My two older brothers, who are both talented writers and musicians, had already become lawyers, probably not a profession they would have chosen if they hadn't believed they would be providing most of their families' incomes one day. My parents pushed them firmly in that direction, but when I refused to take the LSATs, saying I was going to be a writer, they let it go. I knew the latitude wasn't based so much on faith in my talent as on a kind of sexism: I could pursue passion rather than prudence, freedom rather than responsibility, because I was female, because, like Machung's college seniors, my parents believed my income would be secondary and that writing was the sort of thing you could do part-time after you had children. If I'd stopped to examine it, I suspect I would've found that deep down I operated under the same assumptions. Fifteen years later my brothers earn more money than I do, but, as it turns out, my income is just as integral to my family's economic survival. Yet I enjoy my work more. So, which path was wiser? Going for the money or going for the heart?

Reading Group Guide

"I loved it. . . . It's brilliant, fascinating, touching, wonderfully composed." —Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies

The questions, author biography, and interview that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of Peggy Orenstein's Flux, an engaging and illuminating look at the concept of womanhood at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

1. Part I: The Promise

Peggy Orenstein has structured her book in a deliberate way: the opening of each section presents a chorus of voices, leading into the solos that anchor chapters. How does this enhance the author's examination of her subject?

2. Early in the book, one of the author's subjects wonders "if we'd be happier living in a society where there weren't so many choices" [p. 17]. Does contemporary society offer women more choices than those available to previous generations? Were our mothers and grandmothers more content than we are today?

3. Throughout the book, women of every age confront the question of working for meaning or working for money. What is the difference? What are the pros and cons of each choice?

4. In Flux, many of the women in their twenties think of marriage as a means to an end—namely, children. Have you ever viewed marriage this way? Do you now?

5. Six female medical students discuss a seminar they'd just attended on balancing work and family [pp. 37‹38]. None of their male classmates came, nor did the women expect them to. What are the implications of the men's absence on the women's future careers and personal lives? What can women reasonably expect or demand from men?

6. A corporate double-bind currently exists for women in the workplace: women who are perceived as feminine are considered ultimately ineffective, but those who are seen as too masculine are considered overly aggressive. How can these perceptions be changed?

7. Many of the working women in this book, whether they view themselves as being on the "fast track" or the "mommy track," reportedly feel that it is the women at work who judge them most harshly. Is this true in your experience? If so, why do you think this happens?

8. Part II: The Crunch

Talk about the Crunch years as they relate to your life (or as you expect them to). Do you find that, as the author states, "'You can be anything' collides with 'you can't have it all'" [p. 96]?

9. Do you think more women would be more likely to look at single life as an option and not a sentence if society in general celebrated its ease, rewards, and satisfactions?

10. What role does money play in marriage? Is it the true source of power? Has your marriage ever undergone changes in the balance of power because of a dramatic change in the earning status of you or your spouse? Could you imagine marrying a man who would make less money than you over the long run? What would be the advantages and disadvantages?

11. How can children be "an obstacle to fulfillment rather than its source" [p. 105]? Is the concept of motherhood overly idealized by women?

12. Orenstein notes that women, whatever their arrangements, feel like lesser mothers than those of the previous generation, while men, even with minimal participation at home, feel like better fathers [p. 110]. Do you think this is true? If so, why? What might change this?

13. The author suggestions that "neither a woman's early childhood experience nor her expectations . . . nor even a feminist orientation can predict how she'll navigate the choices and constraints of motherhood" [pp. 165-166]. Looking back at your life and the lives of your sisters or close women friends, how do you account for the different choices all of you have made?

14. How does our culture "conspire against egalitarian co-parenting" [p. 173]? What is your response to caretaking fathers when you see them at the mall or the playground? Have you ever treated a caretaking father as less competent than a similar mother?

15. Orenstein comments that women's endless attempts to be perfect mothers remind her of teenage girls, who, no matter what their weight, see themselves as fat [p. 178]. What does a mother have to do to feel "good enough"? What role does mother management play in what women consider good motherhood?

16. Carrie discusses her expectations for her son and daughter [p. 182]. She would like her daughter to have a career before a family, and be able to choose whether to work or not. But she never imagines her son as a stay-at-home dad. How do you envision your children's lives? Are we perpetuating inequality in our dreams for our kids?

17. With which women do you identify most and least? Which women had experiences or made choices that were most enlightening to you?

18. Part III: Reconsiderations

Women executives cite pay inequity, old-boy networks, dead-end jobs, and stereotyping as greater obstacles to their careers than motherhood, yet the challenges of motherhood are often the focus when we talk about women in the workplace. Is motherhood helping to obscure the depth of inequalities in the workplace?

19. Orenstein quotes anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson who wrote, "A pattern chosen by default can become a path of preference" [p. 216]. What are some examples of this in the book and in your own life?

20. The author sees a clear distinction betweeen the self-images of working mothers and those who stay home full-time. How is this illustrated by the women in the book?

21. The author reports that a recent study of sexual dysfunction found that "lack of interest in sex was [women's] number one complaint" [p. 230]. Is this true to your experience? Is it true to the experiences of the women in Flux?

22. Currently, one out of every two marriages fails. Clearly, as an institution, marriage is not built on bedrock. So why do so many women see marriage as a goal?

23. In what ways were the African American women's experiences different from the white women's in the book? Is there common ground between the experiences of these two different groups?

24. Orenstein states emphatically, "If you're doing it all, you do not have it all" [p. 287]. How much truth is in that statement? After reading the women's stories in the book, do you even "want it all"?

25. The author states that if things are ever going to change, men need to recognize and deal with the work-life dilemma. What can women do, personally and on a societal level, to get men to address this question, to struggle to maintain balance just as women do?

26. Have any of your opinions about marriage, kids, and work changed as a result of reading Flux? Has this book encouraged you to reevaluate your previous choices in any way?

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