Gloria takes the ultimate step

Ms Steinem's critics are delighted. Her marriage, they say, proves her theories null and void. They may yet be surprised
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The Independent Online

I suppose if you are going to get married, as Gloria Steinem did last weekend, 66 is not a bad age to do it. You know you won't have to pick his dirty socks off the bedroom floor for the next half century, and both of you have had enough experience elsewhere to develop clear ideas about who you are. I wouldn't myself want a native American ceremony and I am surprised to discover, from reports of the wedding, that it is an old Cherokee custom to refer to the couple as partners instead of husband and wife. The wedding took place at the house of Ms Steinem's friend, a Cherokee chief called Wilma Mankiller, and seems to have been no more whimsical than the recent nuptials of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, in which the latter promised to make her new husband's favourite banana milk-shake whenever he wanted one.

I suppose if you are going to get married, as Gloria Steinem did last weekend, 66 is not a bad age to do it. You know you won't have to pick his dirty socks off the bedroom floor for the next half century, and both of you have had enough experience elsewhere to develop clear ideas about who you are. I wouldn't myself want a native American ceremony and I am surprised to discover, from reports of the wedding, that it is an old Cherokee custom to refer to the couple as partners instead of husband and wife. The wedding took place at the house of Ms Steinem's friend, a Cherokee chief called Wilma Mankiller, and seems to have been no more whimsical than the recent nuptials of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, in which the latter promised to make her new husband's favourite banana milk-shake whenever he wanted one.

In that sense, Ms Steinem's marriage tells us as much about contemporary America, where evangeli- cal Christianity rubs shoulders with New Age mysticism and therapy-speak, as it does about the state of the women's movement. She is simply conforming, rather late, to the rule that most Americans get married at some point, regardless of whether they are gay, straight, Christian, pagan, gloomily misanthropic or opposed to wedlock on political grounds. Andrea Dworkin, Betty Friedan and Naomi Wolf have all been married, although the first two were battered wives and only Ms Wolf remains in a state of (I assume) wedded bliss.

The difference is that Ms Dworkin and Ms Friedan did it when they were much younger, at a time when the feminist critique of marriage was in its infancy. Inevitably, Ms Steinem's marriage has been greeted with the gleeful suggestion that feminism does not work, that even its most celebrated exponents realise the hollowness of their theories in time. After all, she belongs to that generation of activists who leafleted the Marriage License Bureau in New York in 1969, accusing the city authorities of "fraud with malicious intent against the women of this city". It is also true that some of the injustices they were complaining about, such as the failure to recognise rape in marriage as a crime, have since been rectified.

But Ms Steinem has always seemed an unusually free spirit, single-handedly challenging stereotypes with her beauty and her list of glamorous lovers. She would not be the first feminist to recant, or at the very least upset erstwhile admirers with later revisions and pronouncements; Germaine Greer, Fay Weldon, Camille Paglia, Erica Jong, Ms Dworkin and Ms Wolf have all irritated other feminists, myself included, at one time or another. If your habitual realm is one of ideas, it is nearly inevitable that you will one day look back and argue with your younger self, and disappoint readers who have not moved on in the same way. I am not talking here about the kind of political volte-face performed by right-wing commentators such as Paul Johnson or Peter Hitchens, who have made a career out of apostasy, but the sensible recognition that one or two of your original ideas have been overtaken by events.

* Sadly, this is not a dispensation extended to feminists. Unlike generations of cheerfully hypocritical reactionaries, who prescribed sexual continence for the masses while ignoring it themselves, any deviation by an activist such as Ms Steinem is seen as undermining the entire project. Some of the brightest stars of the women's movement have taken this to heart, displaying an absolute terror of admitting to inconsistency. When I went to the Hamptons to interview Ms Friedan for a magazine in 1993, I mentioned almost as an afterthought that a passage in The Feminine Mystique had struck me, three decades after it was published, as surprisingly homophobic.

What I expected her to reply was that her views had changed, which would have been fair enough, although I wondered why she had not said as much in subsequent editions. Instead, she flatly denied she had ever written any such thing, putting me in the odd position of having to read her own words back to her, whereupon she became incandescent with rage and ordered me out of her house. This does not invalidate other ideas in The Feminine Mystique but it does provide an insight into the defensiveness felt by that generation of women.

It has often struck me that those of us who write feminist books are still leading experimental lives, sensitive to the gap between theory and experience in a way that generations of male writers have not been. On the one hand, we are required to be women warriors, taking on the male establishment at every turn, while on the other we are expected to lead private lives of unblemished devotion to the cause. I could not help remembering, on reading about Ms Steinem's nuptials, that she needed an operation for breast cancer in her fifties and people are often changed by such intimations of mortality.

I don't imagine for one moment that she is about to turn into a Stepford wife, or spend hours whipping up milk-shakes. What has been overlooked, in the discussion of whether she has betrayed her principles, is her capacity to surprise and encourage the rest of us. Flipping through a book of feminist essays the other day, I came across one about getting old entitled "It Hurts To Be Alive and Obsolete". Published back in 1970, its pseudonymous author wrote bitterly about being ignored, and then revealed that she was only 43. It is to Ms Steinem's credit - though I fear she might prefer to thank the Great Cosmic Mother - that she has sufficient self-confidence and optimism to embark on a new relationship in the middle of her seventh decade.

* One of the criticisms regularly hurled at Ms Steinem, and other childless women, is that she has no business putting forward theories about child care. This misses the point that she used to be a child herself, and that the experience of caring for her sick mother has given her an insight into the awful responsibilities children are sometimes forced to assume at a very young age. It is a strange side-effect of the middle classes delaying parenthood until early middle age that they have developed a rather precious attitude to it, investing mothers and fathers with quasi-mystical notions about wisdom and sacred duty.

For this reason and others, I am uneasy about the claim that the final decision about whether to separate the conjoined twins, Mary and Jodie, should lie with their parents. The mother and father are emotionally involved in a way that does not always aid clear thinking, which is the unenviable task of the courts in cases with far-reaching implications for society as a whole. It is vital to remember that the interests of parents and children are not always identical, even in cases as unusual and distressing as this one.

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