Megan Marshall: The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of Intimacy; G. P. Putnam’s Sons; New York; $14.95.

Megan Marshall’s book attests to the resiliency of nature and common sense in human affairs. The Cost of Loving is a chapter in the rise and fall of the feminist ideology.

Feminism, like many ideologies, had (Marshall uses the past tense) the characteristics of a religion. What Marshall calls “the code” defined good and evil as confidently as any dogmatic theology: “Thou shalt pursue thy career alone, and not place false gods before it”; “If thy heart causes thee to sin pluck it out, for it is better to go to work heartless than to perish in the self sacrifice of intimate human relationships.”

The theologians of feminism came up with new virtues: “the curative powers of independence,” careerism, unflappable personal control, disdain for men. They burned books and revised the past: “ History,” Rosemary Ruether declared, “is the holocaust of women.” Nature was to get into step with the times: Shulomith Firestone yearned for the day when babies would be hatched; another prayed for “freeze-dried children,” to be thawed out when she was “ready for them.” About half of these “New Women” at some point would have an abortion.

According to Marshall, the Friedans and Millets and Greers sought to “wipe out in one generation what centuries of women had thought and felt.” Femininity “became a dirty word” and was deried as “little bette than a congenital defect.” Above all, love was anathematized as the slippery slope to all that the feminists loathed.

How did young women respond to the new myth of independence and control? They conformed. Catechized by such breviaries as Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Female Eunuch, and shamed into submission by the preaching of Cosmopolitan, Savvy, and Ms., young women were putty in the hands of matriarchs bent on recasting the female in their own image. Defection was quashed. Single working women spoke “condescendingly to those who had withdrawn from the workaday world into marriage and motherhood,” while the backslider insisted apologetically that she too would soon begin getting a paycheck or a degree in the new church of women.

But the 40 stories of contemporary single women that Marshall has compiled in The Cost of Loving suggest that dissent from the ideology soon began to surface.  In part, the controversy, as in all insecure religions, was teleological: no one was sure where lay the treasure of the feminist heart. The theologians sent mixed signals: women were “strong and hard and aggressive”; on second thought, they were “compassionate, caring, giving, more thoughtful than men.” Some took this to be a canonization of half the human race. Others recognized it as a gnawing “fundamental ambivalence about what it means to be a woman.”

The great doubt, however, concerned not philosophy, but the emotions: “Conflict had settled deep into our souls, making us unable to love even when we wanted to.” By 1984, “the ideals of feminism, professionalism and self-fulfillment failed us,” and “the fear of intimacy was the new epidemic.” The New Woman had lost control. Some of the women in Marshall’s case studies described a “feeling of sudden and overwhelming emptiness”; in fact, “many felt, looking back, they never had much at all.”  As an anchorwoman declared, ”I’m tired of thinking about me, me, me!” The passing years left many New Women regretting that they had not married, would not have children, and had wasted their young adult years pursuing feminist goals. “What kind of acid did I take to choose a life like this?” asked one.

Marshall’s analysis is generally persuasive, though she probably overestimates the rapidity with which ideological feminism is going the route of the Shakers and Prohibition. Like most students of feminism, she tends to examine women in isolation from the rest of society: women do not get a fair shake as plain old human beings. The conclusion that at the heart of the New Woman lies a neurotic fear of “being like Mom” may be accurate, but much of what Marshall says applies equally to young men. How many of either sex have thought hard enough to ask: “Power, control, career—for what?” The crucial point Marshall does not develop is that ideological feminism is yielding bitter fruit because it was premised on the same self-centeredness that has always failed as a prescription for happiness. 

Nonetheless, in paring away the rhetorical crust of the ideology, she does allow us to see what really lies at the core: a rather mundane ego problem that has little to do with women qua women, but much to do with imperfect human nature. The epidemic may be the failure of intimacy, but the virus is the disordered values and enfeebled sense of self-worth which afflict men and women alike. cc