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Tea and Strumpets

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

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."

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.

The ultimate, Griffin wrote, is a cheap satiny headband that looks just like a you-know-what. She asked readers to picture a demurely dressed businesswoman, carrying a briefcase, her hair sleek, her nails short. Add to that image a single accessory -- the bra-strap headband -- and "this woman can interject the idea that she controls the keys to the kingdom.

"In the viewer's imagination, he removes that headband, and her clothes magically fall away like a scene from a movie.

"Now, that is power.

"And with that kind of power, I am beginning to understand why today's young women couldn't care less about equality."

Oh, Lord, I thought. In the workplace according to Griffin, a woman could now aspire to the power of a topless dancer. Sure, men pay more attention to attractive women, and a little office flirting can add a pleasant frisson to those water-cooler conversations. But inviting every man in the office -- from the no-brain tech dweeb to the sweaty schlub in accounting -- to mentally undress you? That's power?

I mean, how far can the Oops!Š I did it again! approach take you? For starters, it ain't easy; that bra-strap headband won't work its magic without a little aid from the wearer's face and figure, and most of us don't look remotely like Britney Spears. But even for a pretty young thing, the risks of teasing -- from hurt feelings all the way up to sexual harassment -- outweigh the payoff. In the immortal words of producer Dawn Steel, you can only sleep your way to the middle. Flirting alone won't get you even that far.

And if that's a woman's path to power at work, it's no wonder Dowd can report an outbreak of hausfrau fantasies. Still, you wonder: Why must a woman choose, madonna or whore, lady who lunches or lady who lapdances? Whatever happened to everything in between? Must everything in a woman's life revolve around men? Can't she buy lunch or go shopping without a husband to bankroll her? Can't she work for a woman boss? Can't she be the boss? Yeah, I know: Being the boss is stressful, and Dowd says women are exhausted. But surely it's less tiring to be the boss than to have one who's always imagining you naked.


At Tea N Tapestry, Wendy was waiting for me in the front room, a gift shop stuffed with Mary Engelbreit gewgaws and floral whatsits. The place seemed crowded and undersized, a three-quarters-scale stage set for a Jane Austen movie. The floors were painted pink. I felt tall and loud, and my cowboy boots looked dead wrong: Austin, not Austen.

Too late, I remembered that Wendy is even less of a lady than I am. She was wearing a suitably conservative dress, but was wrinkling her nose at the sister-is-a-special-friend books: way too cute.

The proprietress steered us to seats in a room barely big enough to hold four tables, and each of those barely big enough to hold a load of intricately patterned china. As usual, Wendy began relating the latest chapter of her romantic adventures. She'd just returned from a business conference where she'd met a muscular but sensitive guy who was, alas, too fresh from a breakup to give in to the charms of Wendy's tight shirt. She'd also been pestered by less gorgeous, less sensitive men who spent their time studying her neckline. Those guys -- some of whom could have offered her better-paying jobs -- gave her the creeps. She had held the keys to the kingdom, and the kingdom had grossed her out.

The alto hum of conversation from other tea drinkers subsided for a second, just long enough for one of Wendy's sentences to hang in the air: "It wasn't like I was showing cleavage." Necks snapped. The lunching ladies stared. We were out of order. Ladies do not discuss cleavage.

We lowered our voices and finished our tea and heart-shaped sandwiches. Wendy was too polite to say that once again, I'd dragged her to the wrong restaurant. She'd wanted lady food, not a place where we had to behave like ladies.

 

I was feeling guilty again. I'd made the wrong assumptions, asked the wrong questions. My head was stuffed too full of Dowd and Griffin, too much either-or. I'd been too busy wondering what women want to listen closely to the particular woman on the phone.

Wendy didn't want to be a lady, any more than she wanted those conference-going clods to ogle her breasts. What Wendy wanted was talk. And a salad.


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