Getting Cinderella out of the house; The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, by Colette Dowling. New York: Summit Books. $12.95
What do you think of when you think of Cinderella? I think of a hearth, a heroine, a glass slipper, and a rescuing prince. This, Colette Dowling contends , is the way many women view their working lives, as short seasons of exposure to care, drudgery, and humiliation, destined to end the rescuing prince arrives to make the Happily Ever After of Palace Life a reality.
Dowling is not thinking of adolescent daydreamers or "total womern." Her book addresses itself to and described the mental processes of supposedly liberated professional women business executives, working class mothers, and "cake winning" dabblers in employment from the affluent suburbs. Her thesis is that women are steered toward dependency and away from the rigors attendant on assuming responsibility for their own lives by cultural patterns that begin to influence them almost from the moment they are born. The thesis is not designed to serve as an excuse or an accusation, but rather as an injunction to both sexes to free themselves from these conditioned patterns of behavior.
More a compilation of conclusions reached by individual pyschologist working in various specialized areas than a work of original research itself, the book synthesizes much disparate or previously unrelated information. "A woman has someone who takes care of her" is the message women have received covertly or overtly, for most of their lives. Not to be taken care of implies that one is not quite a woman, a disturbing thought to say the least, and Dowling contends that despite all the feminist demands for liberty and equality, most women feel terrified when actually faced with the prospect of freedom and responsibility, personally and professionally for any but a limited span of time; i.e. until someone comes along to relieve them by taking over the reins.
Dowling's case histories of highly motivated professional women, herself included, make convincing reading. I began the book, skeptical of yet another black and white distinction's being drawn between the psyches of women and men: after all, lots of men cherish dreams of dependency and lifelong care and protection, too.Dowling acknowledges this point, but herm point is that men are trained and encouraged from birth to grapple with the problems inherent in going out to make one's way in the world; women are cautioned and sheltered against doing so, and no amount of legislation guaranteeing equal rights, by itself, will supply the reserves of courage, the power to persevere, or the tough hides they have failed to develop, as a result.
The author is not a polemicist; she has no ax to grind, no movement to gather adherents to. Her purpose is to identify the increasingly prevalent and severe conflict many women experience in their efforts to be both the independent New Woman and the traditional romantic heroine. Whatever the situation in the past, the author argues, the prime oppressors of women today are not men, but conflicting images of what women ought to be. The book, therefore, does not argue feminist politics: instead it asks women to grow and to accept freedom and responsibility, with the attendant risks, uncertainties, and rewards.
The book's format sometimes detracts from its statement. I found the extravagant use of italics to underline significant points annoying as I did the design of short, titled subchapters and the coining of such catch phrases as "Cinderalla complex" and "gender panic." They suggest the intrusion of a mass marketing mentality that underestimates its audience. They smack of Pop Psych, and adolescent genre if ever there was one, and they do not belong in this otherwise admirably adult and provocative book for women. And form men? Well, if the glass slipper fits. . . .