American women have, in the last few decades, fooled themselves with the notion that they have the option of equality whether they choose to exercise it or not. But we third-world women, who can find much in common with O’Faolain’s poverty-stricken home, her struggle to define herself, her inability to find true love, harbor no such illusions.
O’Faolain’s story parallels my own. O’Faolain and I were the pioneers in two very traditional societies. The bright stars of our families, we both went abroad and did well—in her case to Oxford, in my case to Berkeley. O’Faolain would work against the tide of Catholicism and its sanctions against contraceptives and abortion. I would survive a disastrous arranged marriage, a divorce, and the stigma of being a fallen woman in a society where husbands are worshipped. Without strong mother figures, we would both find ourselves vulnerable in the world of men. The juggling of career and hearth would not come naturally to us.
O’Faolain also captures perfectly the lives of our mothers, who belonged to that first generation of women who learned to read and write. But like O’Faolain’s mother, my mother’s dreams would be stifled by motherhood. And like O’Faolain’s father, my father would revert to the role of the family patriarch, demanding complete obedience from his wife and kids. Both women’s lives would end in tragedy; O’Faolain’s mother in alcoholism, my mother in a nervous breakdown. Psychological afflictions due to lack of personal and professional freedoms were common in that previous generation, it seems, if conversations with my friends from the Middle East, China, India, Europe, and America, are any indication. But no one dared to talk about them.
That is why we are moved so deeply by O’Faolain’s raw honesty in describing her loneliness in her middle age, which many of us now experience. My single friends, in their forties and fifties, recount tale after tale of gruesome dating encounters, and wonder if liberation has mostly benefited men. Unlike the previous generation, we may be free to get a divorce or to have sex, provided we can find someone to have it with—not an easy task after a certain age—but we seem to be ashamed to discuss the loneliness of our lives, or to admit that professionally, our status is far from equal to that of men.
This reluctance can be largely attributed to brainwashing by feminists, who continue to preach that we have made progress. Take a survey of the CEOs of corporations, the ranks of politicians, or the list of speakers at any professional gathering, however, and you will discover an almost total absence of women.
The problem is that even though women of my generation in Ireland, in India, in America, made the greatest strides in education, careers, political clout, and personal freedoms, the attitudes of the men of our generation failed to catch up with us. The result is that most of us would rather be dating the friends of our sons. That is just as well because the men our age are dating the friends of their daughters, or at least women who are much younger.
It is not surprising that feminist leaders are reluctant to talk about such social inequities. After all, the movement has brought them fame and fortune, often through working with, not against, the old boys network. In the process, the feminists have settled for much less than what many of us want.
We are the generation that fell through the cracks.
For our generation, marriage and children were the default option, the path we never looked upon as glamorous because it was the road women before us had always taken; indeed it was the course women had been forced to follow because it was the only road open.
So our generation pursued careers and freedom instead, only to realize only too late that what we wanted all along were home and children. Unfortunately, only a few of us had the princess aura to land great husbands, and a fewer still became token females were allowed to climb up the professional ladder, but most of us quit bumping our heads against the glass ceiling and retreated into our private worlds to raise children. And can you blame us? For, no one can fight all of her life.
So, even though we are thankful that our lives were not stifled as our mothers, we feel a bit of wistful envy for the previous generation, which never encountered the loneliness and the responsibility that we, like O’Faolain, now face in our lives.
The feminists tell us that progress takes time; that the next generation, our daughters, will reap the rewards of what we fought for. This is small consolation when it is my life they are talking about. And when we look at today’s role models like Ally McBeal, and when we realize that our daughters are busy reading the latest self help treatise on “How to say yes dear in order to keep your man,” we are tempted to ask, “Are We Somebody?”
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries fro Pacific News Service and KQED.