Rightly (conservative version) or wrongly (liberal version), the workplace is structured to suit men, preferably men with stay-at-home wives. The qualities rewarded there - self-reliance, ambition, single-minded devotion to work - make women unfit for marriage and vice versa. By the time they are ready to settle down, their male contemporaries are married or looking for younger, softer women; if it's not too late for a husband, it's likely to be too late for a baby; if they manage to produce one, they'll confront the fundamental incompatibility - practical, psychological, emotional - of motherhood and career. With some variations, this narrative of forced choices and biological deadlines, in which feminism is either irrelevant or itself the problem, forms the theme of many recent highly publicised advice books. Sometimes the young unmarried woman is told she is having too much fun and will pay later; sometimes she is told she is miserable, and no wonder - while men postpone commitment, her eggs are already scrambling. The young mother may be advised to give up work till her children are older or she may be urged to fight for government policies and workplace changes that would enable her more easily to combine both roles. But basically the books all give the same depressing advice: compromise, settle, tone yourself down, and do it sooner rather than later.
LRB 11 September 2003 | PDF Download