THE story of Cinderella and the glass slipper offers an enduring fantasy: Marry the handsome prince and live happily ever after. Now an alternative version of the fairy tale, updated for the 1990s from real life, centers around a young Japanese woman who took the opposite approach: She kept running away from the prince because she didn't want the glass slipper to fit.
Masako Owada, an ambitious, Harvard-educated economist, has long been the object of Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito's affections. For years the prince, heir to the Japanese throne, pursued her. But Ms. Owada, unwilling to give up her 16-hour days as a rising star in Japan's Foreign Ministry, turned him down three times before finally accepting his proposal.
The Japanese are understandably jubilant about gaining a princess. At the same time, the future empress has been described as "reluctant" because she is losing her career. Her marriage in June requires her to trade independence and fast-track success for subservience and such slow-track pursuits as composing poetry in an archaic court language and performing Shinto religious ceremonies.
Although Owada's case is extreme - a modern woman in a medieval situation - it symbolizes, to a degree, the dilemma educated, career-oriented women often still face when they marry. Whatever new frontiers they might conquer at work, a majority of wives are still drawn into traditional roles at home. Even President Clinton's inauguration yesterday leaves unanswered questions about the professional role Hillary Clinton, a highly respected lawyer and child-rights advocate, will be allowed to play as "first wife." Ironically, her Wellesley College classmates once predicted that she would someday be the president.
Any regular reader of wedding announcements in big-city newspapers can find ample evidence of women's greatly expanded roles. Rare is the bride who doesn't work, and increasingly common are those with careers as lawyers, bankers, managers. But a question remains: After the wedding gown has been packed away and the thank-you notes have been written, which busy dual-career partner will wash dishes and chase dust bunnies? Equality at work doesn't always carry over to equality at home. Unlike the Japanese pr incess who must give up a career when she marries, American brides must usually add a second career - homemaking and child care.
Attitudes in the United States are light years ahead of those in Japan, where one maxim asserts that "A gentleman does not go near a kitchen." Even so, a new study by W. Keith Bryant, a professor of consumer economics at Cornell University, finds that American men still do only 27 percent of the housework.
Ask college women how they expect to divide domestic tasks when they eventually marry, and their replies are optimistic: We'll share housework and cooking, they say firmly. But ask who handles those responsibilities in their own families and the answer is often, "My mom, mostly."
The promise of shared domestic chores may have become practically a new marriage vow. But what couples take for granted in theory is obviously not happening in practice.
In comic strips, in sitcoms, the house-husband has taken his place as a cultural artifact. When will he appear in real-life kitchens in reasonable numbers?
An IBM ad joins the lip service to equality with a nudge in the direction of "balancing your job with the rest of your life." There is a heavy hint that your purchase of a home computer will make this balancing act possible. "Something fundamental has changed in America," the copy proclaims. But is 73 percent to 27 percent any kind of "balancing," or even the beginning of a "fundamental" change?
For the brilliant and successful Japanese princess-to-be, balancing a career with royal duties is unfortunately out of the question. For American women, whose pay on the job has actually declined in comparison with men's, a summary might read like this: Cinderella at work still bumps her head on glass ceilings. And when Cinderella goes home at the end of her hard day, she finds that those old glass slippers pinch - especially when she has to scrub the kitchen floor.