“IT ALMOST SEEMS that we women have become a major problem for the nation,” an American sociologist said recently. Indeed it does, and not just for the American nation. If my judgment is correct, and it rarely fails me, then women are the In problem this season and may well dominate our thoughts for several years to come. Their turn on the cycle has come up, again, and if you are not prepared to hear a great deal about their troubles
you had better move to China, or get earplugs, or stop reading.
Television shows run in cycles (gunfights are going out, appendectomies are in). Novels run in cycles (fat ones are in, thin ones arc out). So do problems. There may have been a time, long ago, when problems just hung around and you could choose which one you wanted to worry about. Not now. Now we like to take one issue at a time, elevate it to the rank of problem, and worry it to death.
It is my belief that the problem-mongers of the world — sociologists, social workers, adult educators, writers — are all secretly controlled by some vast underground Problem Centre. The directors of the Problem Centre decide, arbitrarily, what problems we are all to talk about at any moment. When an old problem is exhausted, or has failed to yield as much material for conversation as the directors had expected, it is withdrawn and a fresh one is sent in. Some problems last for decades (communism) while others stay around for only a few months. Last year’s big problem was fallout shelters, but it proved to be a flash in the pan; everybody talked about fallout shelters, nobody did anything, and finally the problem went away.
QUICK: SEND UP A PROBLEM
Among the problem-mongers, alcoholism was big, back there in the 1940s. Then juvenile delinquency was very large, then suburban neuroses took over. Now the suburbs are boring even to the people who write about them, and narcotics addiction — some of us put our bets on that one, as a comer — turned out to lack staying power.
It's obvious, of course, that problems are essential to the continuation of our society. Without problems you can't have conferences, reports, commissions, or magazine articles. Conferences, especially, are useful. I’ve been going to a lot of them lately, and in fact am turning into a sort of expert on conferences. When you go to them you meet people you would never see otherwise — mind you, it’s always the same people — and you discuss problems.
One of the really nice things about problems is that they perpetuate themselves. Thus a sanitation problem in Egypt, when solved, is replaced by an overpopulation problem; if the overpopulation problem is solved, then a labor shortage results and another conference can be held.
In this respect the problem of women is ideal. With women, lack of freedom used to be a problem, and so they chained themselves to gateposts and won the vote. When they got it the problem became: what to do with it?
This still obsesses women’s magazines. The freedom to work is another women’s problem that endlessly recreates itself: when women can’t go out to work they are slaves of their husbands; when they can, the children may (or may not — that’s something to discuss) suffer; so this, too, is a problem.
In September the CBC, conspiring with the Canadian Association for Adult Education, staged a conference in Toronto (bits of it were broadcast on TV and radio) under the title The Real World of Woman. The title itself was a tipoff. You know that the problemmongers are moving up their big guns when they begin using the word “real.” “This is a real problem,” they say, and it can mean homosexuality, Castro, truancy, or the Nigerian teacher shortage. There is no such thing as an unreal problem, and “reality” is the keynote of all problem-conferences. At The Real World of Woman, someone said “If she’s a real person ...” What is a real person?
But the CBC’s conference was only part of a larger trend which began in the United States. Last winter the Purex Specials for Women on American TV were documentaries for and about women, and though they dealt with various subproblems, like The Single Girl, they had one overriding message: you, too, can be a problem. So diverse were their subjects that almost any female viewer could identify herself with something. It is a problem to be single, but it is also a problem to be married.
KENNEDY AND THE STATUS QUESTION
Women as a problem are also growing in stature in the literary worki. Sex and the Single Girl has been a best-seller on the respectable hard-cover lists for months, though as reading matter it doesn’t compare in liveliness with the estimates of the Department of Fisheries. On disreputable best-seller lists — those maintained privately by the 35-cent paperback publishers — the big items this year are novels about Lesbians. Even President Kennedy has recognized the problem: last spring he appointed a commission to investigate the status of women, though one thing about the status of women that bothers some women is that none of them has so far achieved the status of cabinet member in the Kennedy administration. That, too, is a problem, and Eleanor Roosevelt is already worrying about it.
The women at The Real World of Woman talked, as problem-mongers always do, in problem-csc, a special language used only fôr facing up to problems. They kept saying that a lot of married women “have joined the labor force,” which means they’ve got jobs. (“Darling, I want to go out and join the labor force.” “You want to what?”) Mostly the delegates talked about attitudes, which is what problem-mongers most enjoy talking about.
Dr. Mirra Komarovsky, the American professor of sociology I mentioned above, singled out an attitude she called “neo-anti-feminist,” a new term to me and a welcome one (another nice thing about conferences is that you pick up words with which to delight and astound your non-conference-going friends). Neo-anti-feminists hold, Dr. Komarovsky said, that modern women have become restless and neurotic, and therefore very aggressive, and as a result men have become passive; this has produced “sexual ambiguity,” a phrase which entered our language some years ago but is still a favorite at problem conferences. Some nen — the neo-anti-feminists — blame women for this development, but they are wrong to do so, Dr. Komarovsky said. Actually, it’s a problem of transition.
I heard several of the broadcast chunks of The Real World of Woman, but none of the
other delegates even approached Dr. Komarovsky’s skill as a problem-manipulator. She laid out the problem, worried it for a few minutes, denied the validity of someone’s argument, supported someone else’s, and delivered the coup de grâce. All these issues, she said finally, would be solved by “shifts in public attitudes and imaginative solutions to public problems.” It was the kind of phrase that problem-connoisseurs, like me, will remember at least until the next conference.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.