Is it possible, in 50 words or less, to describe today’s woman, the postfeminist 80’s woman, the woman who will soon become the 90’s woman? I’m glad you asked. The typical American woman in 1989 is divorced, in need of financial guidance, worried about her career, either agonizing about her biological clock or searching out paid caretakers for the children she has, insecure about her looks, and, most of all, traumatized in her relationships with men-. Oh, and she’s also bolder, happier, and more self-possessed than ever. The 80’s woman is a walking wreck who thinks her life makes sense because she has discovered “self-esteem.”

This assessment is based on evidence from an authoritative source, one that’s in the business of reflecting women’s interests and addressing their concerns. I am talking about women’s magazines, which have multiplied in the past decade until they now dominate the periodicals sections of bookstores. Today there are publications aimed at single women, older women, working mothers, female executives, and fitness-crazed women of all ages.

If proof were needed that the feminist movement has shifted women’s priorities and concerns, the names alone of the newer women’s magazines would be enough. While familiar standbys like Family Circle, , and Ladies’ Home Journal are still around, they seem positively quaint next to Self, First, New Woman, Savvy Woman, just plain Woman, and now Lear’s, which is for the savvy new woman who “wasn’t born yesterday.” All that’s missing from the line-up is a journal called Me.

These magazines vary in quality, but they share one trait and it’s a striking one: they are editorially schizoid—which makes them a mirror of the confused self-image of their readership. Their editorial philosophy is straight out of the women’s movement, while their editorial choices, their actual content, reflects the emotional cost of living by feminist dogma. They toss around the language of confidence, autonomy, and strength, while discussing issues that suggest loneliness, anxiety, and doubt. Read enough of these magazines and you will become convinced not only that American women are having a collective nervous breakdown, but that they feel compelled not to acknowledge it. This is the ironic legacy of modern feminism. What, started out, in Betty Friedan’s phrase, as “the problem that has no name” (There is not enough here to make me happy) has evolved, 25 years later, into The Feminine Mystique, Phase II: If there’s so much here, why aren’t I happy?

When I got married in 1965, I discovered rather quickly that I didn’t care much for women’s magazines. There was aimless pleasure in the food articles, the decorating tips, and the afghan patterns, but I had limited interest in whether “this marriage can be saved” and a low tolerance for how-I-survived-a-crisis stories, as well as for women’s humor (as tiresome in its way as men’s humor; what’s funny should be funny, period). Those magazines—conventional fare for women—weren’t offensive, just boring. The image they presented of women wasn’t insulting, just incomplete. And their often idealized picture of domestic life wasn’t irrelevant, but it was unstimulating.

Today, publications like McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal still seem dull, but in a different way. Now they are what People magazine would be if it included recipes. They do publish serious articles occasionally, but these are stuck between features like “Fergie Shapes Up” and “Raquel Welch: Her Most Intimate Interview.” In any case, the older women’s publications are not where the action is; To see the last 25 years in perspective, you have to look to the more recent additions to the women’s market, magazines that demonstrate that whatever problems women had as women, the feminist movement was not the solution.

Take New Woman, for instance, which proudly bears the motto “A New Woman is an attitude, not an age,” and whose editor calls it “an intelligent magazine that offers [women] new ideas, choices, and creative alternatives to help them meet the growing demands in their personal and professional lives.”

This high-flown promise is followed in a recent issue by articles that are as memorable for the questions they leave hanging as for the subjects they address. Like the piece on what to do when “a man you love” is “sweet and sensitive” in private but humiliates you in public. As a;New Woman, of course, you have several options. If the man in question is at least “trying to be a New Man,” you can use patience, because a “half-liberated man may need more time to get his public and private acts in sync.” Or you can take action, by telling him that “he must relate to you as an equal in front of others.” Finally, if the guy is totally hopeless, you can make a stab at “personal wisdom” by tossing “a frozen margarita down his shirt.” Ah, yes—the equality lecture and the old frozen margarita trick. Fixes ’em every time.

As for “creative alternatives,” New Woman offers a personal essay titled “And Baby Makes Two.” What could be more creative than getting pregnant at the age of 40 by “a rock musician still in his 20’s”? And what could be a better alternative than deciding “marriage is out of the question”? (When feminine identity is simply a matter of “attitude,” you can be as creative as all get-out.) And under the heading of “new ideas,” we have the results of a study that produced the “unexpected” finding that couples “who stay together have commitment, each to the other . . . and are possessive of each other.” Apparently this is news to women who go around getting pregnant by rock musicians they don’t want to marry.

For New Woman readers who haven’t reached the commitment stage but would like to, there are articles like “Last Chance for Love” (how “attractive, articulate, circumspect” people can end their loneliness and find someone to marry) and “20 Ice-Breaking Questions” to ask a man on a first date, questions that will help a woman “know someone deeply” and “maximize the opportunity for intimacy.” After reading through this list, I’d say the writers, two women, are correct in their claim that these questions can “turn a man’s head around.” Being married, I haven’t been dating much lately; but I’m sure that if I did go on a date, I could get a man’s attention real quick by asking, perhaps on the way to a movie, “Do you believe in God? What is your concept of Him/Her?”

It is a sign of the times that a magazine can call itself “intelligent” and its readership “liberated” while publishing the kind of first-date advice that once was thought appropriate only for teen magazines aimed at anxiety-ridden adolescent girls. It is a further sign of the times that this same publication, in the same issue, runs a single men’s discussion of “men’s views about women” in which a man named Marshall reveals that one of his least favorite experiences is being asked probing personal questions on a first date. So what is New Woman actually saying on this subject? It seems to be saying that it’s a great idea to grill a first date with intimate questions, so long as you avoid going out with Marshall.

The magazine makes one more pass at motherhood, with a short essay called “Watching My Daughter Grow.” As a way to talk about herself, the writer, a New Woman Mom, chooses as her subject her daughter’s arrival at puberty. “[T]he odds are awfully good that her breasts will be bigger than mine,” Mom writes. “Will I be able to avoid shifting into a competitive mode?” The question, much less the answer, is too revolting to contemplate. But then, this is a writer filled with “sadness” because her growing daughter is now that much closer to being “a woman in a world that does not treat its women well.” And maybe she has a point. When mothers can publicly exploit their daughters’ feminine milestones for no greater purpose than moldy politics and biological sentimentality, then some females really aren’t being treated very well—at least not by other females.

New Woman arouses in me a feeling I never thought possible: a sense of nostalgia for trivialities like fiesta rice recipes and easy kitchen makeovers. Maybe I can kick the feeling with Lear’s, the fine-looking new monthly published for “the mature woman,” age 40-plus, a category I happen to fall into. It could be an interesting experience to have someone else tell me what’s on my mind.

So what is on the mind of us mature women? Let’s run through the May issue of Lear’s and find out. First off, a luncheon interview conducted by editor Frances Lear with talk-show host Larry King. The best moment in the interview comes when King, sly fox that he is, covers his sexual and political credentials in one deft stroke by stating that he could “never go to bed with [a woman] who didn’t know who Adlai Stevenson was.” Mrs. Lear seems pleased but skeptical. “Never? No exceptions at all?” she asks. “No, no, no,” insists the maturity-loving King.

Next, a column on how women can get the maximum financial settlement in a divorce proceeding. No youthful romantic notions here. Women are advised to plan from the beginning “for the contingency that a marriage may end in divorce.” This is followed by a piece on backgammon.

Moving on, we come to a lengthy article on the digestive system, one that is memorable for two reasons. First, it places a detailed description of every unpleasant digestive problem known to (wo)man under the rather charming heading “Digestive Snafus.” Second, it is illustrated with a photograph of a nude woman. Lear’s being an unmistakably feminist publication, this naked female can’t possibly be intended as some kind of cheap eye-grabber. But since nudity is not a requisite for digestion, it’s hard to view her as a medical illustration. Then why is she there? And why is her hand resting gracefully between her breasts? And what is she thinking of as she looks dreamily off into space? Gallstones? Lactose intolerance? Adlai Stevenson?

Next, another article on divorce, this one featuring less-than-famous women who have either dumped or been dumped by famous Hollywood husbands and are now trying to “emerge from divorce with a new definition of self,” presumably something other than “divorcee.” The consensus among these ex-wives is that divorce 1) is a devastating, disorienting, deeply painful experience and 2) has its positive side. For readers who need even more information on divorce, the article includes a sidebar on Divorce Anonymous, a Southern California self-help group in which lots more divorced people are redefining themselves.

After that, in rapid succession, we find a superficial piece on Rose Styron, wife of the novelist William Styron; a lavish photo spread of women smoking cigars; a book excerpt called “What Really Happens in Bed” (silly me, I had assumed that one of the advantages of not being born yesterday was that you didn’t need instruction on what really happens in bed); and an interminable account by Pete Hamill of his trip to a fat farm.

This last one surprises me. I have never read anything by Pete Hamill in which he wasn’t either continuing his mourning for the passing of John Kennedy and Camelot or bitching about the heartlessness of government. And now here he is, posing barechested in a sombrero, talking about submitting “my Irish peasant’s feet to a pedicure” and yammering on about a recurring dream involving Bette Midler, a Mexican volcano, and a pizza.

Excuse me if I feel gypped, not to mention depressed. Someone finally publishes a magazine for the woman with a few years on her and this is what they come up with? Digestion and backgammon? Cigar-smoking women? Pete Hamill’s dreams, for crying out loud?

The Lear’s message, of course, is You’re not getting older, you’re getting better. And the New Woman message is IsTi’t it great to be free and female and have it all? What getting better has to do with divorce, Larry King’s sex life, and Pete Hamill’s feet, I don’t know. And how you square the New Woman celebration of freedom with the need for first-date advice and a fear of ending up alone is beyond me.

The mixture of self-congratulation and insecurity reflected in these magazines, the combination of desperation and denial, is evidence that women have been mislead. Undone by the options they’ve demanded, they are now adrift, seeking security in the creation of even more options. Having replaced emotional order and common sense with the freedom of “attitudes,” they appear bewildered that the tradeoff isn’t working out. (Can anger be far behind?) They seem to sense that a life without a degree of social and moral confinement is itself a kind of prison, but they don’t know how to find their way out or even whether they’re allowed to want out. They have redefined themselves repeatedly, but it hasn’t solved their problems. They’ve thought about nothing but themselves for years, and it hasn’t made them happy. Now they get to read about themselves in their own special magazines and hear that they are happy, they are. So it must be true, right? After all, they read years ago that they were oppressed, victimized, cheated, and that was true, wasn’t it?