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Books: The Girls’ Realm

4 minute read
Robert Hughes

A DIFFERENT WOMAN by JANE HOWARD 413 pages. E.P. Dutton. $7.95.

Jane Howard took notes the first time she smoked pot. She is that sort of person, on the testimony of this busy autobiographical journal: clever, organized, earnest, eternally selfconscious. She is also only 38, and so her book is a kind of interim report.

It is swiftly apparent, though, that nothing comes easily to Jane Howard except accomplishment. It has taken her the better part of two decades, however, to disentangle herself from childhood and, in particular, from the ghost of a conventional, cheery, saintly, disapproving Midwestern mother. Nor has it been easy for her, despite much consciousness raising, to wear female adulthood with comfort. She is a chronic stocktaker, and it is fairly clear that what she saw when she began to put this interim report together gave her no great pleasure: a good reporter, a financial success, a useful friend, housebroken house guest, amusing aunt, attractive heterosexual single woman, and an occasional partner in civilized love affairs that did not last.

In the early 1970s, as a writer for LIFE, she began to travel back and forth across the U.S. talking to all sorts of women. Strong currents of discontent were already running. Were women finding new roles or clinging to the old ones, and with what degree of satisfaction? Like a great many of those she talked to, Jane Howard had no usable models for the kind of person she wanted to be. The old male stereotypes are a rough fit, if soaked overnight to soften them: be strong (but don’t be afraid to show weakness), be aggressive (but don’t be a pig about it), be rational (but let the emotions flow). Female stereotypes are not so easily remodeled. It makes no real sense to urge that women be submissive (but not too submissive), flowerlike (but not wait to be picked), devoted nest builders (but go forth and confront the world).

The author’s conditioning was not much help. Once, she writes, her mother quizzed her about a man she had mentioned. ” ‘Well,’ I began, ‘he went to Yale Law School …’ ‘He sounds wonderful,’ declared my mother. Her curiosity was sated.” When Mrs. Howard muttered—about an unchaperoned weekend—that things werenot done that way in her day, the dialogue stopped. ” ‘Please,’ I never could quite bring myself to implore, ‘tell me how you’re supposed to do it. Not how to be an English major, not how to work up a good case of guilt, not how to be career-oriented, but how to live!’ … I suppose if she had known she would have told me, or the word would have got around somehow.”

Almost everyone Jane met was willing to tell her how to live. “Hey, did anyone see three index cards with the Groovy Orgasm speech notes on them?” somebody yelled at a sex clinic. She visited a fisherperson on the West Coast, a Tupperware lady in New England, various militants and separatists, a rich assortment of discontented wives, and a few who were not. Not many of the reports are reassuring. The writer’s own sister, who is married and likes it that way, said, “What can anyone say of me other than ‘Isn’t she wonderful? She’s so together she remembered to put on both her shoes.’ I have the feeling I’m on hold.”

Few of the women in the book are making as civilized sense out of their lives as the troubled author, who manages a becoming blend of pride and resignation. Unfortunately, this impressive woman reaches the end of her book with some fairly shoddy new stereotypes. Men and women have drifted apart, she notes. “To fill the vacuum their absence creates, most of us have become more vital and imaginative and resourceful than most of them. We are also funnier.” The other half of the autobiography is still to be lived, however, and when Jane Howard gets around to it, it may be that advancing years, as sometimes happens, will cure the subject of a slight myopia.

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