Carrie Bradshaw was the lead character on the now defunct TV show, Sex and the City. Carrie had a glamorous job as a newspaper columnist, dated men for romance and sex rather than marriage, and relied on female friends for companionship.
In all this, she was fulfilling the liberal principle that we are supposed to be independent, autonomous, self-defining individuals. Carrie had her own independent income, her own self-chosen career identity, and she had the unrestrained freedom to pursue sex and romantic liaisons.
The question is, of course, whether this liberal kind of lifestyle is ultimately satisfying. The TV show itself never gave a clear yes or no. To some degree it glamorised Carrie's lifestyle, but at times it hinted at the frustration, emotional hurt and loneliness experienced by the thirty-something single girl.
Sophie Cunningham is in some ways a real life Australian version of Carrie Bradshaw. She had the glamorous job (Australia's youngest ever publisher at age 28), and she was well-known in her industry for regaling others with tales of her sexual and romantic exploits.
As one journalist said of Sophie Cunningham's life in her 20s and early 30s "In many ways, she exemplified the successful young independent contemporary woman".
But how satisfying was this kind of success? As it happens, Sophie Cunningham gave up her publishing career at the age of 37 after suffering burn out. She also now admits that her generation of women did not generally experience happiness in relationships. She says that in her late 20s when she moved to Sydney she was living,
amid an epidemic of single people, particularly single women who longed not to be single. There was another epidemic of narcissism and extreme self-focus adding to this unhappiness.
Her interviewer then records her as saying that,
She saw what she describes as a tidal wave of passiveness ... Despite contemporary women's supposed independence, so many had their lives on hold, awaiting the man of their dreams to arrive ... and then their real lives could begin ... I saw so many women living in a state of denial about relationships - hanging on for years with the bloke who is never going to commit, the married man who will never leave his wife, the long-distance lover who'll never be available. The love affair basically exists in their head. (The Age 17/4/04)
The ultimate fate of the independent single girl is too often, it seems, to have a "not quite there" relationship with a man who will never commit to her. This leaves her not as an active and self-defining individual which liberalism claims she will be, but as someone who must passively prolong her wait for the normal processes of adult life to begin.
There is one further confession from Sophie Cunningham. She experienced a maternal longing for a baby, but was never able to achieve this. According to one newspaper interview,
in her early thirties she ached so badly for a child and felt such anger that she didn't have one that it drove her quite mad. 'A lot of people find it very painful not having kids ... I don't think it's brave to admit that you'd love to have children but you haven't had the chance.' (Herald Sun 2/5/04)
So the independent single girl ethos didn't help Sophie Cunningham to succeed in this important part of her life either. Instead, she felt the absence of a child as such a loss that she was driven "quite mad" by her anger.
Liberals tell young women that they should be able to do whatever they want to do and be whatever they want to be. It's repeated almost like a mantra.
But ironically it's liberalism itself which most severely limits the lives of women. If women are told that they should aim at independence and self-definition, then they are restricted to those things which you can achieve as an independent, self-defining individual.
And the things that a woman can do on this basis are career, sex, shopping and female friendships. Which is why these things are emphasised in the more feminist of women's magazines and television shows.
But these attainments are too limited in scope to ultimately bring fulfilment to a woman. Sophie Cunningham achieved these things to such a degree that she was held to epitomise the successful independent modern woman. But it is her own testimony that she and woman like her were missing out to the point that they felt their real lives hadn't even begun.
This is because there are important aspects of life which we don't achieve as independent, self-defining individuals. This is where liberalism so much restricts the lives of women, as it undermines such things as marriage and motherhood, which require not autonomy or self-definition, but a stable commitment to others.
(First published at Conservative Central, 16/05/2004)