Wednesday, September 7, 2011

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

Inspired by Amanda’s booktalk on Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and the long wait to get it from my public library) I placed a hold on an earlier Peggy Orenstein book – Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World. [Feminist side note: There is relatively little about sex in this book, certainly much less than the other topics in the subtitle, and yet it gets top billing. Marketing? I highly doubt Ms. Orenstein chose that...] I have had such a reaction to this book that I thought it merited more than a booktalk. I feel like I’ve been living a booktalk of it since I started it, because it’s all I want to talk about. Orenstein released her breakout bestseller Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (which SPL doesn’t own a copy of?!) in 1994 and followed with Flux in 2000. It is divided into sections that loosely follow the chronology of women’s lives: The Promise (twenties), The Crunch (thirties), and Reconsiderations (forties and beyond). Throughout each section the author recounts her interviews with hundreds of women at various points of life on their differing decisions about career, marriage, childbearing and childrearing. She mostly interviews them in small groups of friends, which leads to interesting revelations about what they regularly share with one another and what they don’t. She also chooses “representative” individuals for more in depth study and follows them for extended periods of time. The crux of what Orenstein is exploring is the “you can do anything you want” mantra that girls of our generation of were fed, seemingly from birth – I know I heard it constantly and I know I believed it, or at least I thought I did. She explores the degree to which women were sold a bill of goods by this – citing the income gap, the glass ceiling, the stigma of being a working mother, and especially the guilt felt by women who try to “have it all.” Reading women’s feelings, in their own words, as they moved through the stage of life I’m in and into the next ones has truly given me a host of reactions and emotions. I saw women like me, struggling with the same questions and worries and also women in lives I would never choose. While she explores the issues I noted above, this book is not a complaint or a list of reasons being a woman is unfair – she places the women in the context of their choices, not their circumstances (for the most part) and allows them to talk freely about the things they can control and the things they can’t.

The women who most interested me were women in the “Promise” years who had chosen to put careers first, a group I would consider myself in, at least marginally, but they made it clear that they would NOT consider us peers at all. These corporate women would consider all of us librarians “first grade teachers,” a catch-all for women in careers that were more about contributing to the “greater good” than making money. The implication for these women was that these jobs could be done part-time after kids and were a place-filler, rather than a career. I don’t feel like that about my job at all, but I had to acknowledge that I made the decision to become a librarian because I loved it, not because it would be lucrative. I never imagined that I would have to be the sole breadwinner for a family and so in that way my choice was a gendered one. I didn’t like being lumped in with a group that wasn’t career-driven, but this was just one of the many voices in Flux that made me really question my choices and my assumptions.

I’m not sure if this is just hitting me at the right time or if this book is really full of the wisdom of the ages, but I highly recommend that you all read it and tell me. It has really been a spring board for my own thoughts about what I’ve done so far and what I truly want. I know that it will stick with me as I move forward and it has given me a little more freedom about what might constitute a successful life.

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