Bitter ashes of burned bras

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Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of "Prozac Nation" and other books.

Am I the only one who feels that last week’s news events prove that the women’s movement has failed?

First, the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket alienates everybody who the first woman with a real chance to be president hasn’t alienated already. Then we find out that there are prostitutes who are paid $5,500 an hour, and the consolation prize for earning a Harvard law degree is that you get to stand by your husband’s side when he resigns from public office in disgrace. Even worse, because Silda Wall Spitzer is accomplished and beautiful, the whole scene serves as a grim reminder that even amazing women become sexually disposable after a certain age.

Is this the world that feminism hath wrought?

If Hillary Clinton does manage to become our first female president, I say, so what? Look at the place she’d be leading.


Walk onto the trading floor of any of the hedge funds that crowd the Lever House building in Manhattan and hardly a female face will be seen who is not a secretary or an assistant. Enter the software shops of Silicon Valley, go to the rows of terminals where geeky computer programmers design cleverly crafted new media. They are mostly smart boys, playing with their toys. Everything that keeps our economy running is run by men. Yes, of course there are women around -- no one needs to remind me that Meg Whitman was the powerhouse behind EBay -- but these are still treehouse atmospheres, boys’ clubs.

For all the dynamic, visible women who are chief executives -- like the CEOs of Xerox and Kraft -- only 16% of corporate officers and 17% of large law firm partners are female. After all this time. Meanwhile, women still make 80 cents on the man’s dollar. And, for whatever reason, women who do the exact same work but are also mothers make 10 cents less, according to Anne Alstott of Yale Law School. It seems that the only industries in which women earn more than their male counterparts are pornography and prostitution.

And it’s 2008.

My Sunday night summer viewing, which once consisted of the slumber-party gab of “Sex and the City,” is now the lad-happy cool of “Entourage.” I really do love that show, but most of the women -- girls -- in it cannot even kindly be called sex objects: They are simply sockets. And this portrayal of prop whore-things is OK by everybody; it seems to go largely unnoticed and uncommented on because life is like this now. While the economy recedes for most people, in the unreal world of high finance and Hollywood, the people who set the tone for society -- which is to say, the rich -- set one of male fantasy.

As with everything, the women’s movement is partly to blame because back in the 1990s, when the Third Wave was going strong, we advocated sexual freedom, lipstick glamour, a joyous embrace of femininity, an affectionate embrace of men. It was the era of do-me feminism. I appeared topless on the cover of one of my books, a decision I stand by still. I am proud that Naomi Wolf published a book called “Promiscuities” and that Katie Roiphe wrote a book called “The Morning After.” I am really proud that Susan Faludi came out with the brilliant “Backlash.” But I don’t think the idea that you could own your own orgasm was ever intended to teach college coeds that it is a good idea to spend spring break in a shower with your roommate in a motel room in Daytona Beach having a lesbian encounter for the cameras of “Girls Gone Wild.” That’s not feminism!

So if we’re not taking over the world, where are all the women?

We can’t all be porn stars like Jenna Jameson or loitering at the Plaza Hotel’s bar looking for clientele. Surely some of us must have, well, jobs. And sure enough, there are indeed more women in the workforce than ever before -- more women with young children, more women in every situation and variation on life. Economics dictates that most of us must work. By virtue of necessity, we actually have come a long way, baby.

But there’s a countervailing tendency: the much-discussed opt-out revolution, which many upper-echelon women have chosen as a way of ruining their lives all by themselves, no assistance from men at all. This phenomenon has been both well chronicled and thoroughly debunked. But whether or not you believe it exists, professional women are having babies and deciding not to go back to work because motherhood is a cult, or homemaking is meaningful, or the hearth has heat -- or, really and truly, because being in an office 40-plus hours a week kind of sucks. A lot of men don’t like their jobs either. But it’s only women who have decided the hell with it -- and, truly, the hell with feminism.


Somewhere between childbirth and a no-fault divorce, a lot of smart women have chosen to engage in some risky behavior. Opting out is not a feminist choice. It’s mostly just a bad idea.

Feminism, which was meant to be fun, has lately started to seem so sour. Men, particularly married men, often dislike Hillary Clinton, and I suspect that it’s because she represents the unsexy wing of the women’s movement. She comes across as nearly neutered, as the woman whose husband would cheat on her -- and, in fact, we know he did. But it cannot be the case that we went through all that bra-burning and consciousness-raising to be left choosing between, yet again, the madonna or the whore. Balance is difficult. But we can do it; we’re women. Like Ginger Rogers, we’ve been doing everything that men do, only backward and in high heels, for a very long time.