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Sisterhood Is Powerless

In response to:

Women at Work from the August 14, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

In an otherwise fine article on women at work [NYR, August 14], Andrew Hacker has seriously misrepresented the contents of my book, The Third Sex: The New Professional Woman. He has taken out of context a comment I made about male warrior conditioning in tribal societies and applied it to women on Wall Street—a significant mistake that leaves me wondering whether Mr. Hacker understood the book.

The comment I made describes a hypermasculine syndrome that arises in the male personality in a sex-divided culture. I am talking about the origins of male dominance when I say that “men, distanced from their families by gender role, generate values and beliefs that elevate male over female abilities. Unable to acknowledge their own human sensibilities, they become hyperaggressive and hypermasculine, denigrating everything feminine….” For reasons that are not clear, Mr. Hacker lifted the last phrase following the comma, saying that I saw signs financial women were becoming that way.

To call the new professional woman “hyperaggressive and hypermasculine” is a serious error. It supports a negative stereotype of the professional woman and an outdated concept of femininity that I do not wish to defend. Nor do I believe that professional women have become too masculine. They have changed in ways which were necessary to survive in a corporate environment, much as men have done over the past several generations. But the price women are paying is quite a bit higher: 62 percent of female executives have no children and 50 percent are not married, compared to only 3 and 5 percent of men in the same roles.

One of the questions my study answers is whether financial women have surrendered reproduction by choice and the answer, for the most part, is no. Their losses are due to moving into career roles designed for men in a sex-divided warrior society. It is unlikely that men would have put up with such roles for long if they had no families at home to supply nurturance and emotional release. A major thesis of the book is that the sexually integrated society cannot tolerate unadulterated male career roles without major effects on reproduction.

Other people have reached similar conclusions to mine, arguing, as I have, for major changes in corporate practice to accommodate parents and families, changes that would affect both men and women. Any other conclusion leaves women carrying the overwhelming burden of integrating work and family, with seriously debilitating effects on their personal lives.

Mr. Hacker suggests at the conclusion of his article that the spinsters of past generations who rejected marriage and family to pursue careers have some useful advice for today’s working women. Perhaps so, but as a societal solution, I find that answer appalling. Are we to tell our young female college students that if they aspire to professional status in the public sphere, they must surrender family roles? Should women accept spinsterhood as the price of success? Doesn’t this promote and perpetuate the classic division of labor between men and women, in which men can be asked to sacrifice their lives for God, country and a big paycheck, while women have a choice between the stripped-down lives of Amazons or the low status of clerical and support workers? The writer also points out that the early-century spinsters drew support from an extended family. With reference to today’s women, such a comment seems blindly complacent. Professional women often live far away from their families of origin, which in any case may be disbanded. Even during the early part of the century, one suspects that being an aunt wasn’t what many ambitious women had in mind. As one Smith College student wrote: “We cannot believe that it is fixed in the nature of things that a woman must choose between a home and her work, when a man may have both. There must be a way out and it is the problem of our generation to find the way.” That was written in 1919.

Women want integration and presumably many men want that now too. The Third Sex represents that integration for women who move from emulating male behavior to reclaiming parts of feminine identity and finally to recreating femininity in the light of female authority. Hopefully, the third sex will be followed by a fourth sex, as men create new concepts of what it means to be a man.

Patricia McBroom

Princeton, New Jersey

Andrew Hacker replies:

I did not counsel spinsterhood, but simply said it was an option, not least because a preoccupation with pairing off has done in so many women. Despite brave talk, few husbands want wives with demanding careers. Professor McBroom hopes for more enlightened attitudes. I am not so sanguine. At best, men might reconsider were they to encounter growing numbers of women who can do without male companionship. I apologize for the misquotation, which distorted Professor McBroom’s meaning. Still, I am surprised that in her sampling of Wall Street professionals, she did not find any highly assertive women.

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