BOOK REVIEW / Guilt-edged bonds: 'Our Treacherous Hearts' - Rosalind Coward: Faber, 14.99 pounds

Justine Picardie
Sunday 05 July 1992 23:02

IN THE late Eighties, a rash of self-help manuals were published that all promised to help the angst-ridden contemporary woman solve her many problems. The books bore such titles as Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing And Hoping He'll Change, or Smart Women, Foolish Choices.

Unlike the books that millions of women had bought in the Sixties and Seventies - books such as Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch or Kate Millett's Sexual Politics - these advice manuals did not hold men responsible for women's ills.

Instead, readers were chastised for their inadequacies and exhorted to stop being so neurotic and to change themselves. The problems of the unhappy, unloved, thoroughly modern woman could not be blamed on vile men, nor on awicked patriarchal society. If women were confused, they had only themselves to blame: it was their own fault for having unsatisfactory relationships with difficult men.

Rosalind Coward's book, Our Treacherous Hearts, subtitled 'Why Women Let Men Get Their Own Way', might be thought to slip neatly into this new, post-feminist genre, if only for its title. 'Contemporary women are in something of a mess,' she observes. We have allowed, indeed encouraged, men to dominate our pathetic lives. According to Coward, we are still too passive, too anxious for male approval, too enslaved by our children. All we do is worry in a vague, hopeless, unconstructive way, and long for a stress-free future when we can stop fretting about the conflicting demands of careers and husbands and children.

Coward does not say that women should return to old- fashioned, tub-thumping feminism: she believes that the movement subverted itself. 'In what could almost be seen as a parody of stereotyped feminine behaviour, feminists experienced themselves as powerful and promptly turned on each other.' But she does point out that 'any real improvement in the lot of women will entail changes in social, economic and political priorities'. And she regrets that as 'women retreated from the stridencies of feminism', they turned 'to a new myth - one that declared the problems confronting women to be individual, not social'.

Yet Coward does not offer a blueprint for collective action. The sisterhood is not called to arms. Instead, she examines the failures of women to make changes in their lives. 'Women have let men get away with it,' she says sternly. 'They would prefer to keep the traditional structures of masculinity and femininity intact.' Whereas Susan Faludi, in her best-seller Backlash, published earlier this year, launched into an angry polemic about the external pressures brought to bear on women in the Nineties, Coward has turned her attention inwards, to the female psyche. And she does not like what she sees.

She illustrates these arguments about female complicity with details from the interviews she has carried out with 150 women. It is a depressing litany of guilt and collusion and manipulative behaviour. I also have to say that I found it completely compelling to read, and spent a few days pondering my own hopeless, ghastly failures.

But that, really, is the problem with this book. If, as Coward believes, women spend too much valuable time feeling guilty, what is the point of making them feel more guilty? She seems to suggest that there's good guilt (feeling bad and then making constructive changes in one's miserable life), and bad guilt (feeling bad, badder, baddest). Yet why should all the onus be on women to initiate change? Where are all the caring, sharing, hunky New Men we read about in the newspapers not so long ago? (Out playing football, that's where, getting into some serious male bonding, or trying to rediscover the beast within themselves on Wild Men weekends.)

Rosalind Coward writes that it is only through admitting our failures that women will reshape their lives: 'Giving voice to these feelings is the first step towards a more honest appraisal of what contemporary life is like for women. And only when women are able to be more honest will they be free from the myths of 'femininity' and 'womanhood' which are at the heart of the collusion with men.'

She may well be right. But we could do with a little help from some friendly men.

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