Tea and Strumpets

If feminism is dead, we don't care for its legacy: A choice between lunching or lapdancing

I was feeling guilty. Last time, I'd made Wendy meet me at the Pig Stand No. 2, a diner with terrible food but a gajillion goofy little pig figurines and the kind of waitresses who call everyone honey. The place makes me laugh, and Wendy makes me laugh. I'd thought the two would work together. Wendy picked at her lunch politely. "I'll have to bring my mom here," she said. "She'd like it."

This time, I owed her. "Where do you want to eat?" I asked.

"I don't know."

The extremes of the female spectrum: What happened to all the colors in between?
Joe Forkan
The extremes of the female spectrum: What happened to all the colors in between?

I persisted. "Well, what do you feel like eating?"

"Salad. Something light."

"Lady food?"

"I mean, I could eat something macho, like barbecue, if that's what you wantŠ"

We were drifting into Deborah Tannen territory, having one of those ur-female exchanges that's more about establishing your connection to the other person than telling her what you want. I wanted to make Wendy happy; Wendy wanted to make me happy. But neither of us would say which restaurant, precisely, she wanted, lest it preempt the other (say, the way that I'd dragged Wendy to the Pig Stand).

"No," I fibbed. "Lady food sounds good. And there's this place I've been wanting to try."

That last part was true: I had been wondering about Tea N Tapestry, a gift shop/tearoom that recently opened near my house. It's in a bungalow on Studewood, wedged somewhere between the FunkYard (where you can buy a couch shaped like a high-heeled shoe) and The Groovy Little Hippy Shop (my local purveyor of tie-dyed clothing and drug paraphernalia). The bungalow is painted peach and decorated with white gingerbready woodwork. A wooden cutout of a Victorian lady stands on the porch. You can practically smell the Earl Grey brewing inside. In an ocean of funk, Tea N Tapestry presents itself as an island of antiques, good breeding and well-groomed elegance, a woman's haven from the jostling, rowdy, uncouth world of men. It's the kind of no-boys-allowed hideout that gives me the willies, makes me worry that somehow I'm not female enough.

Was that what Wendy wanted?

Is that what other women want?

Wendy said she'd meet me there.

What do women want? That question of Freud's had been bugging me recently. Sure, there are differences between the sexes: I think Tannen's right, that those elliptical, hyperpolite conversations are more common among women than men. I even buy the related evolutionary idea -- that there are hard-wired differences in men's and women's behaviors -- but the overlap is so great, and the differences so small, that Freud's question seems more a matter for ad agencies than a Puzzle for a Great Mind. Look at the big picture, and women want the same things that men want: food, shelter, sex, money, love and a blazing-fast Internet connection.

But that week, I'd been reading otherwise in the papers. On Wednesday, in the June 7 New York Times, Maureen Dowd declared that a new wave of feminine longing was sweeping the land, that women now yearn to be ladies, to snare husbands who can pay all the bills, to return to the separate-but-coddled ideal of a prefeminist era.

"Women want to be rescued," Dowd wrote.

"Women want to flirt.

"Women want to shop till they drop….

"Thirty-five years of striving have tuckered women out. 'You go, girl!' has downshifted to 'You go lie down, girl.' "

Dowd cited pop-culture evidence: Cosmo magazine, the Eisenhower jacket Prada will revive this fall, a snippet of someday-my-prince-will-come dialogue from Sex in the City. That stuff sets my teeth on edge, but Dowd's a beguiling writer, and I wondered whether she'd sussed out a cultural shift that I hadn't noticed before.

I could even add anecdotal evidence to Dowd's annoying list. Fairly often, Wendy or some other twentysomething friend will entertain me, the old married woman, with her own personal version of Bridget Jones's Diary. I've heard so many of those laments that I mentally file them as their own literary genre: the single woman's picaresque search for True Love, replete with humorous but horrifying accounts of bad boyfriends and dates gone woefully wrong.

I have a hard time holding up my end of those conversations; married life is long on character development but short on plot. But did my unmarried friends actually envy my life as a mom? Did they yearn for Cheerios dried to the floor and crayon marks decorating the coffee table? Did they aspire to driving a car that smells like pee and spilled milk? To calling the baby-sitter to check whether a three-hour movie is too long? Was this happily ever after? Or had I failed to get myself rescued properly -- say, by a dot-com millionaire who could afford a household staff?

The next day's Houston Chronicle brought another back-to-the-future dispatch, this one from fashion editor Linda Gillan Griffin. In the first couple of paragraphs, she declared herself a proud feminist, a fervent believer in equality. But she noted that "sometime in the last 20 years, feminism went out of style."

She described the feminine trend in women's fashions, but not just the ladies-who-lunch stuff that Dowd mentioned. Feminism, Griffin wrote, "may have been supplanted with an even more potent, upward-bound movement -- cleavage." And with that, she proclaimed the icon of this new power to be the lowly bra strap, now proudly, commonly visible as outerwear, and guaranteed to reduce men to slavering fools.

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