Lipstick Traces


The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World, by Karen Lehrman, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 228 pages, $23.95

If we step back and consider that 100 years ago American women could not vote, and that a mere 50 years ago many companies did not hire married women as a matter of policy, the changes in women's status in the last half of this century seem nothing short of amazing. Yet what used to be called "the Woman Question" is still with us. With external barriers to advancement largely gone, many women find themselves held back by conflicts between career and family–while the women's movement continues to see patriarchal oppression everywhere and is preoccupied with such perils as dirty jokes at the office.

In recent years, there has been a spate of books attempting to reclaim feminism from the ideologues and the crazies. Karen Lehrman's The Lipstick Proviso is the latest addition to the body of dissident feminist literature. A former New Republic editor, Lehrman espouses a classical "liberal feminism." She is angered by the "victim-based theories" and the "group-think mentality" that have replaced the old mandates of femininity with an equally or more rigid "set of opinions, values, behaviors, even clothes." She is appalled by feminist theories that scorn rationality and independence as "male values," and she is impatient with the notion of women or feminists as "a homogeneous sisterhood."

Feminism, Lehrman says, is simply about equal rights and equal opportunities: "How women exercise those rights and what they decide to do with their opportunities–these are matters of personal choice." Above all, feminism must treat each woman as a unique individual: She may be a corporate raider or a full-time mother, may "wear slinky dresses and heels or baggy overalls and combat boots." The "lipstick proviso" Lehrman would append to the feminist contract says, "Women don't have to sacrifice their individuality, or even their femininity–whatever it means to each of them–to be equal."

In the public sphere, "liberal feminism" requires gender-neutral treatment–with no special protections and no preferences: "Feminism, like (classical) liberalism, requires equality of opportunity, not equality of result." Lehrman provides a good overview of research showing that much of the gender disparity in pay and job status results from individual decisions such as starting families and choosing jobs more compatible with child rearing. She notes that men's and women's career choices have converged greatly and will probably continue to converge, but may never be the same. "[I]f women choose not to go into every profession, be it auto repair or brain surgery, in the same numbers as men, this represents no affront to feminism."

An emphasis on individuality and equality does not, Lehrman argues, imply wholesale denial of innate sex differences. Women, she writes, "have made enough progress to be able to discuss the fact that some emotional and behavioral differences between the sexes may have biological roots." She is particularly interested in evolutionary psychology, which examines ways in which our behavior is (supposedly) affected by the strategies our ancestors pursued to enhance their genetic survival–a theory which, Lehrman stresses, does not necessarily confirm traditional stereotypes; new research suggests that competitiveness and ambition are "natural" female traits.

As Lehrman points out, the knee-jerk dismissal of biology has obvious dangers: If, as is now generally agreed, women's greater susceptibility to depression is partly genetic, ignoring this does no one any good. Other issues are perhaps more controversial. If women are biologically predisposed to be better at caring for the young, will child rearing remain woman's work? Lehrman says that "the average mother…will probably be more sensitive, nurturing, and responsive to a child's needs than the average father" but adds that in many cases the father can be an equally good or even better parent. As important, she makes the often overlooked point that just because some behaviors may be biological doesn't always mean that they're good or that they can't be modified.

Just as equality and individuality are not incompatible with sexual difference, they are not incompatible with sexual dynamics. Lehrman is sharply critical of the dogma that the workplace must be unsexed. "Sexual tension is as much a part of any office environment as professional jealousy," she writes, while stopping sensibly short of the notion, which a few mavericks have taken to promoting, that women should use sexuality as a career asset. Refreshingly, she also observes that a rejection of anti-sex feminism does not require or justify flaunting one's sex life and kinky fantasies: "Real strength–even real sexual strength–doesn't need to be constantly exhibited and reinforced."

Lehrman has insightful things to say on many other topics, from the hypocrisy of women (including Hillary Rodham Clinton) who use the specter of "backlash" to deflect charges of unethical conduct to the absurdity of arguing that it's unfeminist to want to be thin while ignoring the serious health risks of being fat.

Lehrman's spirited celebration of autonomy, beauty, and true diversity makes The Lipstick Proviso inspiring. Her individuality-with-difference approach to sexual distinctions is basically sound (even if, having reviewed some of the research, I think she tends to overstate the differences). She has a knack for the pithy phrase that sums up a key point: "[J]ust as ambition doesn't make you any less of a woman, grace and sensuality don't make you any less of a feminist." Or, "Under liberal feminism, the fact that a woman is female may not be the most interesting or important thing about her."

That said, I have some major caveats. While stating that American women are not "oppressed," Lehrman makes too many concessions to the sexism-is-alive party line–from such vague comments as "much of society continues…to punish women who breach gender lines" (how, precisely?) to an uncritical restatement of the cliché that girls get less encouragement than boys to speak in class (with a rather lame dismissal of the significant challenges to this claim).

More fundamental is The Lipstick Proviso's man problem. As Lehrman acknowledges, her primary focus is on women–which is not necessarily wrong but results in a blinkered view. Thus, for instance, she suggests that partly due to traditional socialization, women are "more vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors" ranging from extreme dieting to helplessness, forgetting that men are more prone to far deadlier self-destructive behaviors such as neglecting one's health, reckless driving, alcoholism, and suicide. She asserts that the government has no right to bar women from combat but says nothing about male-only draft registration.

If feminism's core value is freedom of choice, what about men's choices? I agree that "equality…doesn't require that men stay home with kids in equal numbers to women" and that women will probably always choose to do so more often than men. Yet in some of the surveys Lehrman cites to show that most women would prefer to work less and spend more time with their families, many men also express this desire. Today, though, this option is far more available to women, as is the opportunity to trade a lucrative job for a more-interesting one. It is still far more expected of a man to be a primary breadwinner in a family.

Lehrman often talks about the need for women to force men to "evolve" not through government action but individually, in their relationships. Women, she says, should demand more equality, more emotional support, more sharing of housework and child care. But as long as we want to change traditional arrangements, shouldn't women, too, modify their inegalitarian expectations and give up their claim to a more-special bond to the children and place less priority on a man's provider potential? Lehrman suggests that this probably won't change because of women's evolutionary heritage and leaves it at that–even though she has no trouble arguing that other traits that she believes may have genetic roots, such as male inexpressiveness or female emotional dependency, need to change.

Such one-sidedness pervades Lehrman's discussion of the "personal work" women need to do: "[T]he primary problem for most American women today isn't how `society' deals with women, it's how individual men do–and how women let them get away with it." (Is that really a problem for most women?) Unlike orthodox feminists, Lehrman stresses women's responsibility for staying with men who mistreat them; but it doesn't occur to her that in the personal realm, men may have just as many complaints.

This brings me to the most puzzling aspect of The Lipstick Proviso–one that, at times, makes it seem like a book with multiple personality disorder. One of Lehrman's major themes is that today, "completing the feminist revolution is largely up to women themselves: it primarily involves completing their own personal evolutions"–gaining emotional independence and self-confidence, truly taking charge of their lives. That's wonderful advice, but does it have much to do with feminism per se, particularly since Lehrman acknowledges that many of the internal barriers that she argues are holding women back are shared by many men?

While Lehrman explicitly says that under liberal feminism, "[t]he personal…is no longer political" in the sense that it does not require government action, she implies that it still requires collective action by women. And while urging feminists to dispense with "the notion of a `women's movement' with a single voice and a single agenda," Lehrman seriously suggests "a revival of consciousness-raising groups." Then, on the same page, she emphasizes that "any type of artificial sisterhood is the antithesis of self-development, of individuality" and that true autonomy can only come from within.

In the end, The Lipstick Proviso left me with two thoughts. First, the basic message of the book is impressive and important: "An autonomous woman is not waiting to be rescued, by a man, a job, or a certain number of seats in Congress. Her primary source of approval resides within herself." Second, when we look at women's lives without considering those of men, we invariably miss much of the picture.