In her latest column, Gender back on the agenda (3/12/2005, not online), Julia ponders the Maureen Dowd controversy. Maureen Dowd is a pretty, but single and middle-aged, American columnist, who has complained that men won’t go out with intelligent women like herself because the male ego is too fragile.
She’s wrong. It’s actually normal for university educated men to seek partners of a similar background. But most men won’t be attracted to women who aren’t feminine, friendly and family-oriented. And that’s why men, quite understandably, run for the hills when they meet women like Maureen Dowd. Who would want to spend a lifetime with a woman who takes men to be the enemy, who is conflicted about her own womanhood and who is unlikely to commit herself in any significant way to marriage or motherhood?
But back to Julia Baird. She accepts the alternatives posed by Maureen Dowd: that women are either going to aim for intelligence or physical attractiveness, and that the trend is for women to accept the “sex object” option. Julia Baird is aghast that women should be “intent on being sex objects again” and that they would turn to plastic surgery in a narcissistic effort to achieve self-esteem.
What then does Julia Baird call for? How does she want a woman’s life to be? In her own words,
Our fears, anxieties and identities continue to be carved into our faces and our bodies, with “self-esteem” increasingly defined by our curves and the agelessness of our skins, instead of access to education, well-paying jobs, health and respect from our partners. We are extraordinarily compliant about a culture that values booty over brains.
I must admit I was disappointed with Julia Baird when I read this. Is the modern Western girl really so shallow? The problem is not her rejection of the body perfect ideal. It’s that there is so much missing in her description of what might fulfil a woman’s life.
Look at what she thinks a woman needs: education, a well-paying job, health and respect from a partner. Access to education women already have. Across the western world, women are forming the majority of university undergraduates. It’s the same with access to jobs. An increasing number of young doctors and lawyers are female. Health is certainly important, but women continue to do better than men on this front too, outliving men on average by several years. And respect from partners? Is this all that Julia Baird would wish for from a man?
If these things were enough to truly satisfy a woman, then women would have satisfaction and self-esteem in abundance.
But she leaves out too much. What about love? Doesn’t a woman need, as a girl, the love of her mother and father? Doesn’t she naturally seek romantic love as a teenage girl and marital love as a grown woman? Don’t most women want the experience of a maternal love for their own children?
And what about the life of the spirit? Hasn’t Julia Baird ever felt a responsiveness to nature? Has she appreciated the arts, or felt a love of country? A pride in the accomplishments of her own family?
And what of her own womanhood? Hasn’t she experienced her own identity as a woman, including a sense of female physicality, of female sexuality, of female emotions, and of the feminine virtues?
What Julia Baird proposes for women is drab. It reads like a political agenda: be a good feminist girl and get a career and a respectful partner. It has little to say to the real, personal, inner life of a woman.
It is as fake as the plastic, paid for beauty which Julia Baird in her column criticises as a “madness we both perpetuate and consent to”.