NOTES FROM AN INCOMPLETE REVOLUTION
Real Life Since Feminism.
By Meredith Maran.
257 pp. New York:
Bantam Books. $22.95.
Femininity isn't what it used to be. Women today shout, spit, smoke and sit with their legs apart. They assert their opinions, demand satisfaction of their needs, pursue their private fantasies. At the same time, many aspects of femininity -- especially those involving beauty, romance and nurturing -- haven't changed much in the past 30 years. Feminist theorists typically attribute this discrepancy to the perseverance of patriarchal norms and the power of ''backlash.'' Writers who have attempted to argue otherwise have been dismissed for betraying the women's movement's line on gender and are often called pawns of right-wing misogynists.
It would be hard for anyone to call Meredith Maran right wing. A former anti-Vietnam War protester, New Mexico hippie, Marxist union organizer and women's health-collective worker, she currently advises ''socially responsible'' businesses, writes about incest as a feminist issue and has been a co-parent of her two sons with Ann, her partner of a decade. Yet in ''Notes From an Incomplete Revolution,'' Ms. Maran admits to being ''appalled by the distance between my instincts and my beliefs,'' and proceeds to question and ultimately reject some of the most sacred tenets of feminist theory, especially those concerning differences between the sexes.
''Is it social conditioning, biological inevitability or a combination of the two that makes me feel more 'womanly' when I'm planting seedlings in my garden than when I'm chopping wood at my cabin?'' she asks. Why are women still more interested in feelings and affection and intimacy than men? Why do most women -- even homosexual women -- still love to dress up and flirt with men? Why do even her most true-believing feminist friends still feel a far stronger urge to stay home with their children than do their politically sensitive husbands? And why can't she or her friends do anything to change this? ''Our daughters refuse to play with trucks; our sons point the dolls we've given them at us and say 'Bang! You're dead.' ''
While Ms. Maran isn't proposing any grand theory on sexual differences, she refreshingly doesn't rule out the possibility that biology may be heavily invested in many of our behaviors. Her main concern is more fundamental, showing the ''daily differences between how feminism says women's lives should be and how our lives actually are.'' This desire to tell ''the truth'' about the real world was also the subject of her first book, ''What It's Like to Live Now,'' which more generally probed the gap between the dreams of the 60's and the realities of the 90's.
Ms. Maran's troubled relationship with her mother, who is active in many causes in Berkeley, Calif., is a recurring theme in both books. The connection between her mother's good feminism and bad mothering remains murky, but the relationship does seem to have influenced Ms. Maran's suggestion that most women today -- even young, college-educated women -- are still choosing lives that allow them to give motherhood top priority. ''The point of feminism was to give women choices, not to dictate what those choices should be,'' she concludes, though she doesn't note the irony of orthodox feminists being the last to realize this.
Ms. Maran herself hasn't completely escaped the contradictions of what she refers to as her ''sagging ideology.'' Phrases like ''the life-threatening condition of being female'' turn up sporadically, often seemingly by rote. But they never blunt this book's important point: that at this stage in the history of feminism, being honest about women's lives is far more a sign of progress than retreat; that to complete the revolution, women need realistic analysis more than symbolic gestures. ''If the personal is indeed political,'' Ms. Maran asks at the start of the book, ''what does my real life say about my politics?'' Perhaps that those politics are as outdated, repressive and condescending as the politics women set out to change.