Fine-tuning the Narrative: Are You Happy Now?

"Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him"

We've come a long way, baby, since mid-20th century teenage American girls were taught to obliterate their egos and apply lipstick at night for Him.

The opening quote, if it is one, is the penultimate piece of advice in the list ostensibly published on May 13, 1955 by Housekeeping Monthly. The article famously finishes with a last blow to the female esteem: "A good wife always knows her place."

Actually, it's not clear whether or not Housekeeping Monthly actually ran that piece so sexist that it screams of spoof, which also counsels married women to let Sacred Spouse talk first: "Remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours."

But it doesn't matter. Even if the piece is a satire by a housewife tired of doing dishes in spike heels with her waist clamped in a corset while listening to Beloved bitch about his boss, it reflects the spirit of the time.

We've come a long, long way since the 1800s, when women were banned from higher education. And yes, we have a long way to go. Chinese women may no longer bind their feet for the sensual pleasure of men - there's one upside to dictatorships for you: Mao banned the practice, on the practical grounds that among other things, it rendered women useless. But in the name of beauty, modern girls and women suffer still torments, albeit perhaps not quite equal to having one's toes rot off.

Today's women disfigure their feet by wearing spike heeled shoes with triangular toes. Do your feet end in a triangle? Men are increasingly prone to gussying up: witness the metrosexual trend. But do they systemically destroy their feet?

Types of intelligence

Today's youngsters have no idea how far we've come since women were banned from campuses and the ballot box. A major change is that while pay may remain unequal, opportunity has leveled out. Best of all, in today's post-feminist era, it's cool to choose a career and hire people to help with the kids, and it's also cool to stay at home and raise them while the spouse works. And that, stresses Prof. Rutie Kimchi, Head of Psychology at Haifa University, applies to both men and women today.

"I see it among my colleagues, the young men and women: a genuine attempt to combine career and family," Kimchi says. "I always say you can write your article in a year's time, but the child won't be three years old again. And that applies to men too."

Today no professions are barred to women: they are not automatically associated with nursing and kindergartens any more.

But is that as it should be? Are men and women equal?

They certainly are not, physiologically: just LOOK at them, for heaven's sake. Men-are-bigger. Want more proof? Women can have babies and men can't.

But do men and women differ in aptitudes, in mental faculties?

"There are all types of people. People differ. Yes, at a glance, men and women look different. There is a great deal of research about mental faculties and aptitude, but there's no consensus," Prof. Kimchi strives to instill a sense of proportion.  "There are differences: but I think that one of the most important things to develop in recent years is that we no longer talk about a single type of intelligence. There's emotional intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, analytical intelligence, and so on, and both men and women are distributed along the curve."

It can't be said whether the differences were created year before socialization or structure, namely hormones, she adds: it's probably both. The important thing is to make fine distinctions, and that's true of men and women alike.

It is not that men are good at math and women at something else: distinctions are much more fine-tuned now. "We have come a long way," the professor sums up.

Mom, please don't work today

Pressed to be exemplary career-persons and perfect mothers too, preferably serving organic risotto with impeccably groomed hands, some women feel they have less freedom than ever to do as they please if they are to meet their own expectations of themselves.

 But do today's women really doomed to the unbearable burden of perfection? Yehudit Bronicki, half the powerhouse couple that created and runs the global alternative-energy giant Ormat Industries (TASE: ORMT), laughs: the times have changed, she says.

"The problems that young women face today in establishing their status are easier than women of my generation," she says. "Today's young couples have no doubt that Mother and Father run the house together and bring up the kids  together, and both go to work. My children are a different generation: the problem is not there any more."

That's how she feels. How do her children feel? "I have three," Bronicki says, with a smile you can see over the phone. "One doesn't think there was a problem, one doesn't talk about it, and one thinks she was deprived. Each has a different memory even though they grew up in the same household."

But apropos her daughter, Bronicki recalls an event in the girl's childhood, when they met a school-friend of the mother's. "We chatted about what we're doing and how her life worked out and how my life worked out," describes the industrialist. "And when we got into our car, my daughter said to me, Mom, I think you're happier than her."

 "Decide what you want to do, how you share the house keeping with your husband and stick to it, don't complain, don't blame the others," counsels husband and Ormat chairman Yehuda Bronicki via email. "Avoid complaining about your status as a 'victim' of the male society. There have been hurdles in the past, there are very few today."

Guilt attack

Yet, just as more and more opportunity opens up before us, the guiltier some women feel.

We are freer than ever before to choose a career, but we worry about the emotional cost to our children. "I don't want any more presents. I want you not to work today," sobbed Yasmin, 4, hearing why Mama can't play with her and that if Mama didn't work, neither would the light switch.

Also, we may study whatever we choose, but only 6% of the CEOs in Israel are women, and never mind glass ceilings in industry: academia is notoriously chilly to female achievers. The proportion of female doctoral students at Haifa, at least, is much higher than the proportion of women on the academic staff, Prof. Kimchi notes.

Two of Israel's five biggest banks are run by women: Galia Maor at Leumi and Smadar Barber Tzadik at First International Bank. One can only hope they earn what a man would, but that isn't the rule. The Women's Lobby figures from 2004 show that men earn 18% more than women per work hour. The biggest difference was actually in banking and education: women there earn about 55% of what men earn for comparable work.

Also, women can be our own worst enemies. Martha Stewart is by all accounts as aggressive in business as The Donald but while the one builds skyscraper monuments, the other made her billions pandering to the 1950s-type image: she teaches women how to make a better cream pie, not a better career.

What women want

Yes. We have come a long way since World War II, when women really started joining the western workforce. In the post-feminist era, we can even acknowledge that men and women really are different. Post-feminism fine-tunes the narrative: the differences don't mean that women can't do the same work as men, and vice versa.

Yes, we want equal job opportunities. Not all of us want the jobs. That's okay too.

Do your kids feel they're being sacrificed on the altar of Mom's ambition? It is subjective, as Yehudit Bronicki says: some women choose to take a break in their careers, which is not always an option, though. Certainly it isn't in academia, Kimchi says.

Women are the ones who give birth, Bronicki points out. She believes that while today men and women share the joys and burdens of house-care and child-rearing, their roles at the home front are different, and should be: "Women are the ones who nurse."

So: career or children? "Both are important," advises Rutie Kimchi. Her advice to young women: learn how to maneuver between the two and accept all the help you can get. "You'll be a better mother if you realize your ambitions," she stresses.

And if you are torn? Well, that's life. "Spend your free time - weekends, holidays - with the children. Don't leave them with babysitters or grandparents. They will appreciate and value it because what is rare is valued. Make the limited time you spend with them intensive. Tell them about your job," advises Yehuda Bronicki.

As we come to terms with the 21st Millennium Woman, we must also come to terms with the 21st Millennium Man. It's a learning process: They are learning to share the power. We are learning to share the care.