Working It Out

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

“To love and to work” were Freud’s ambiguous and provocative words when asked what a healthy person should be able to do. In this collection, twenty-three contemporary women present candid and instructive accounts of how each has managed to do the work she chooses and how each integrates that work into her life. Determining the place of work in her life forces each contributor to ask similar questions: How did my upbringing influence my choice of work? How did my education prepare or discourage me in my choice of work? Is there a smooth integration between my role as physicist (or sculptor, teacher, or whatever), or is my work performed at great cost to my roles as mother or wife?

The women who answer these questions in Working It Out are artists and professionals: a sculptor, a filmmaker, several university professors, poets, a photographer, a biomathematician, and several professional writers. As a group, they are an elite: well-educated, successful, white collar women. While the editors contend the contributors were not chosen because they are famous, several are, and certainly all of them are successful if not renowned in their fields. The fact that they were chosen for this volume indicates that their achievement has attracted attention. Not only are the contributors alike in the work they do, but they also share personal characteristics. Most are in their forties, are or have been married, have two children, and are at least college-educated.

Since both the work and the lives of the contributors are similar, as might be expected, the life patterns each woman describes have much in common. Many of the women were first or only daughters in families which encouraged achievement for both boys and girls. The women proceeded to college in the 1950’s and, in keeping with the pattern Betty Friedan describes in The Feminine Mystique, met and married a husband. The husband took her to suburbia where she had her two children, while he went through graduate school. When he finished, she went to graduate school, found a mentor, got divorced, and finally, after many trials, obtained the Ph.D. or made the first film or had the first poems accepted to become the professional she is today. The pattern of adult life crisis reported in Passages by Gail Sheehy and presaged by Erik Erikson’s stages of intimacy and generativity seems to be supported by the experiences of the contributors. In fact, Pamela Daniels, a professor at the New School for Social Research, one of the editors of this book and herself a contributor, was a disciple of Erikson at Harvard; consequently, it is not mere coincidence that her own remarks and her editorial shaping of the other essays reflect her mentor’s influence.

Certainly, the life histories of the other women reveal this underlying pattern. Kay Keeshan Hamod, a Ph.D. with her degree in modern European intellectual history, has a historian’s perspective on her own life. She begins with an overview of women’s place in the nineteenth century, proceeds to describe the emergence of feminism in England (her dissertation topic), then blends the history of the milieu with her sense of her individual place in the stream of history. She is consciously aware of her life as having “periods”; after her college years and her marriage, she entered what she calls her “suburban period,” when she reared her two children and provided domestic support for her professor-husband. The fact that editors Daniels and Ruddick place Hamod’s essay first predisposes the reader to notice the similarities of experience in the subsequent essays.

This is not to say that the women are carbon copies. On the contrary, the portraits are without exception individual, candid, sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter, for each woman has responded variously to her circumstances. Sculptor alice atkinson lyndon began her graduate school days as a student of architecture at Berkeley where she was constantly discouraged from continuing. She was told that as a woman she lacked sufficient physical strength to proceed in her chosen work. When later as a sculptor she chose welding as one of her mediums, she was accused of being “masculine” and “aggressive.” Mathematician Evelyn Fox Keller recalls bitterly an even more destructive graduate school experience. As a student in physics, she attempted to enter a traditionally masculine field. The ordeal she underwent as she was systematically discouraged and told outright she had no place in the field (though she made excellent grades) was less painful than the isolation she felt since no men would befriend a female rival and there were no other women in her classes. If she had had, she says, a “political consciousness” as women do today, she might have recognized what was happening to her. As a woman trying to enter physics in the 1950’s, she was bewildered and depressed, but did not yet have the concept of oppression; she thought her problems were internal,...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Best Sellers. XXXVII, December, 1977, p. 291.

New York Times Book Review. September 4, 1977, p. 8.

Progressive. XLI, December, 1977, p. 56.