A Feminist Sampler
There’s probably something for almost everyone in this lively and engaging volume of the practical applications of feminist thought. Light on political polemics and heavy on contemporary-cool homespun charm, Young Wives’ Tales draws the reader into the worlds of thirty young women with various lifestyles as they attempt to develop committed relationships. On a deeper level, the book raises questions about the ability of a movement to hand down its wisdom and experience to keep the next generation from having to “reinvent the wheel,” in a manner of speaking. It also tacitly points to the movement’s failure to reach certain socio-economic groups in any real and meaningful way.
Most of the personal accounts in Young Wives’ Tales are rooted in the experiences of heterosexual couples and cover familiar feminist territory. One is tempted to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” as the same old shopworn issues are hammered out by yet another generation of women, as though these things have never been dealt with before. A cursory glance at the titles of the selections reveal that women are still longing for Mr. (or Ms.) Right and searching for sexual satisfaction. Some of the pieces could almost have come out of women’s magazines from decades ago, including a wild and crazy piece that would make Helen Gurley Brown proud, entitled “Sex and the Shacked-Up Girl.”
Brides still fret about whether getting married is a betrayal of the women’s movement and their own selves. In “A Bride’s Anxiety,” a 32-year-old advocate of independent singlehood struggles with the challenge her upcoming marriage presents to her cherished viewpoints. “I never really wanted to get married before,” she says to her younger sister, who sensibly replies, “That’s the point. You’re not supposed to want to marry just anybody.” Another bride has misgivings about her wedding because her best friend is an outspoken feminist who deplores the matrimonial state and disapproves of her decision. Have we really “come a long way, baby” (in the words of the hip ad from the 70’s) if we still do not know and trust our own minds and instincts, but entrust our futures to ideologies and dogmatists with no more sensitivity than the patriarchal, male-dominated society we congratulate ourselves on escaping?
The same distinctly “feminine” concerns that occupied previous generations of less enlightened women occupy today’s under-35 women as well. While firmly avowing that this is not the most important day in their lives, the myth of the “perfect” wedding is as strong as ever, though what it constitutes now may be wearing ethnic garb instead of gowns and tuxes or engaging in a pagan ritual that takes two days or delicately blending cultural traditions to keep the families happy. Anachronistic symbols have apparently not yet been divested of their mystique either.
One bride takes great pains to explain that the white wedding gown she wears doesn’t signify virginity, but new beginnings. In “A Marriage of My Own,” the narrator’s fiancé proclaims, “If I just buy you a ring, it’s like me making you mine.” They decide to buy custom-made rings instead, though this reader fails to understand how paying for a custom-made ring makes a person somehow less “yours” than handing over the same Visa card for a ready-made one under glass in the velvet showcase.
The piece “Raw Material,” which tells the saga of a woman almost married to a few Mr. Wrongs over the last four years, best depicts the curious, perplexing old/new world in which people navigate today. “Twice…I have sat with a man and talked about the food to serve at our wedding…Once I got a diamond ring and once I got a ten-dollar silver band from a cart in the mall…” Meanwhile, she tries to live out a feminism that can “list everything that’s screwed up, but when it comes to articulating what a better, just society would look like…the list of goals gets vague and fuzzy.”
This fuzziness is apparent in the fact that it appears young couples are still really arguing about who does what household chore. “Deciding who does the dishes may set the tone of a marriage,” proclaims the feminist in “A Marriage of My Own,” which makes a relationship sound more like a grudge match than a love match and is an irony when most of the book’s contributors appear to able to afford part-time household help. Why sweat the small stuff? Or do we secretly enjoy the blame games and guilt trips?
With rare exceptions, the focus of Young Wives’ Tale seems to dwell on the same type of middle class American females that the feminist movement attracted decades ago. It is disturbing to realize that the movement apparently still fails to make any real inroads with the urban and rural poor of America, who are too busy trying to survive on a daily basis to engage in detailed philosophical analyses of every aspect of ordinary life.
The book is more successful in attempting to portray the sexual diversity of twenty-first century America. Scattered among the all-too-predictable heterosexual couples are the lived realities of less traditional pairings. “One Queer Family” portrays the problems an opposite-sex gay couple experience when they wed: “The concept of a practicing lesbian marrying a chronic gay man because they love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together is too queer for most to comprehend.” The narrator of “Table for Three, Please” details the challenges in setting up a ménage a trois under one roof. “Omnisexual for Life” describes a new model of sexuality for a lesbian Catholic Filipino woman who marries to a straight man and experiences rejection by the gay community. In “The Lesbian Baby Dance,” a gay woman struggles with the deep-seated desire to be a mother in spite of the complications it presents for a same-sex couple and comes up with a piece of important wisdom applicable to many life decisions. “Another woman might have ignored these feelings and pretended they didn’t exist,” she writes. “But I don’t want to have any regrets when I’m ninety.”
The real charm of Young Wives’ Tales is in the insights and deeply moving comments found in unexpected places. “I do have a burning desire to experience beyond my career, beyond my own life,” writes “The Lesbian Baby Dance” wannabe-mother. “The other morning one of our neighbors came running out of her house…She was a frightful mess, but all she cared about was getting the kids to school on time. I want that ability to think about something outside myself, the ability to put my life’s energies and passion into caring for a life…”
Then there’s the refreshing statement of the “omnisexual” Filipina, who after grappling with the disapproval of her society, family, religion, and ultimately even the gay community, finally proclaims in a glorious moment of empowerment: “I really don’t give a fuck what anyone says anymore.”
The book also provides a stunning definition of a person who is truly liberated—that is, someone who has come to realize the vast potential and capabilities resident within one’s highest and best self, and graciously integrates this self-knowledge into real life applications: “...self-contained, patient, and humble…possessing a yielding nature tempered by integrity and a sharp mind…contemplative…compassionate…but not at all spineless…who wants to stay home with our (eventual) baby…who makes coffee in the morning and does the dishes at night” and “who is right now at the Laundromat doing our laundry” because writer is trying to finish “A Bride’s Anxiety” for New Wives’ Tales.
She is describing her fiancé, a man of 24.
Would that the women who contributed to this thought-provoking collection—and we readers as well—be courageous enough to approach all our relationships, whatever they may be, with that young man’s perfect sense of balance and big-hearted graciousness.