How Long Till Equality?

American women take stock and step up the pace

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up when the host gave them a pair of nylons, a month's supply of Palmolive and dinner for two at Casa Claude. Now, encouraged by a host who is a professed feminist, women wrangle with each other over issues like abortion and disarmament, and ask tough questions of guests ranging from Alan Alda and James Watson to transsexual twins and Henry Kissinger, who might have an easier time of it on Meet the Press. The Donahue show is one striking illustration of women, five times a week, finding a voice.

Even the defeat of the ERA means just another redrafting, a further extension of the debate. There is one point on which feminists and most of their foes can now agree: there is no going back. The only question is how to define the future and how to cope with the challenges that the changing role of women will present.

In certain subtle ways, it might be argued that women may have succeeded too well. Their hopes have been so frequently dramatized and debated that they have turned into cliches of fiction before they have become matters of fact. The abundance of persuasive re-examination and the wealth of fine writing that have come from this woman's decade—Anne Tyler and Gail Godwin, Maxine Hong Kingston and Joyce Eliason, Ann Beattie and Elizabeth Hardwick and, yes, Joan Didion—have created a consciousness that is both more aware and a little restless, a little reckless, even, about mistaking gains for guarantees. Critic Janet Maslin summed up the plot of a movie this way: "[The heroine] confronts her new situation. She redefines her relationship with her children.

She re-enters the work force and examines her anxieties about men, sex and love. She learns that she is as much of a person without a partner as she was with one—perhaps even more of a person." That breeziness may just be emblematic of a generally renewed spirit, but somehow one prefers the rejoinder to a persistent cigarette ad printed boldly on a T shirt: I HAVEN'T COME A LONG WAY, AND I'M NOT A BABY.


Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

These things are not measurable by surveys or shows of hands or random samplings. If they are knowable at all, it is through some almost incidental combination of art and intuition, force of feeling and shock of knowledge. Finally it all comes to this: that women, after years—after centuries—are stepping through Virginia Woolf's looking glass. The measure of all the change and growth of the past decade is that women, finally, are coming out the other side of the mirror. The limit is that they have not shattered the glass. Not yet. And yet. —By Jay Cocks. Reported by Anne Constable/Atlanta, Ruth Mehrtens Calvin/Boston and Janice C. Simpson/New York

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