Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gail Sheehy’s title Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life refers to the passages or transitions that people make between years of relative stability in their adult lives. Passages are often painful periods during which women and men are forced to change their assumptions about their relationships, their jobs, and their goals. (Although her subtitle refers to “crises,” Sheehy prefers the less threatening word “passages.”) These passages are predictable—one way or another, all adults must move from one stage to the next.

Before Passages was published, the stages of children’s lives (such as “the terrible twos”) were well known, but little had been written about how adults develop, and that little was mainly written by men about men. In contrast, Sheehy describes the development of both women and men. She goes on to show that women’s lives have different changes from men’s and that these changes affect not only the women themselves but also their marriages.

Sheehy began to think about passages one day in her mid-thirties. In her job as a journalist, she was talking to a young boy in Northern Ireland—and his face was shot off. That moment shattered her comfortable assumptions about life and made her confront her own mortality. In her anguish, she wondered if she was unique and alone in what was happening to her at that time in her life. So she set about interviewing other adults about growing older...

(The entire section is 441 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Because Sheehy is not a trained psychologist and because she writes in a popular journalistic style, Passages is seldom mentioned in scholarly books. Professionals seem to regard it as a sourcebook, a popular work which has been useful in getting women interested in their own development. Nevertheless, its impact has been great. For one thing, Sheehy was a pioneer. Before her book, few studies differentiated women’s development from men’s, and few discussed the relations between men and women as they are affected by different personal timetables. She was one of the early writers to focus on one of the most important problems that continue to face contemporary women: how to mix motherhood and a career. All in all, her book has contributed to creating a favorable climate of opinion for discussion of the development of adult women and for more professional and academic studies of them.

Moreover, Passages has sold millions of copies, and even if everyone does not find that each aspect of each “passage” is relevant, many readers have discovered insights and perspectives that tally with their own experience and that help them understand their lives. Since many professional books are by necessity limited in scope, the popular and nonprofessional nature of Passages allowed Sheehy to be more comprehensive than many books on women’s development. Although some readers may say that Passages is not really a work of women’s literature because it treats men as well as women, Sheehy makes clear that to understand a number of women’s problems, it is also necessary to understand men’s problems with sympathy. This book led Sheehy to write a sequel entitled Pathfinders (1981).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. An important and well-written academic study. Gilligan discusses the differences between women and men as revealed by how they talk and write about themselves. Chapter 6, “Visions of Maturity,” deals with the problems of women’s early adult and midlife years. A bibliography and indexes are included.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Reinventing Womanhood. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. In the course of her wise and well-written book, Heilbrun defends Sheehy against critic Christopher Lasch and supports her idea that women’s lives follow different patterns from men’s. A bibliography and index are provided.

Kaplan, Alexandra G., Nancy Gleason, and Roma Klein. “Women’s Self-Development in Late Adolescence.” In Women’s Growth in Connection: Writings from the Stone Center, edited by Judith Jordan et al. New York: Guilford Press, 1991. This article focuses on Sheehy’s first passage. It finds that college-age women want both to break away from their mothers and to have close relationships with them. Contains a bibliography and an index.

Lasch, Christopher. “Planned Obsolescence.” New York Review of Books 23, no. 17 (October 28, 1976): 7. An important negative early...

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