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Maureen Never Murmurs

Are Men Necessary?, Maureen Dowd’s disjointed exploration of women in post-feminist America, fails to deliver on the promise of its titillating art and provocative title. The real question underlying this book (Putnam, 2005, $25.95) is whether women—who, she believes, have been failed by feminism—can extricate themselves from their current muddle on their own, since men, unhelpfully, are not evolving alongside them. Her points: Women now realize that they cannot have it all. Narcissism and materialism have undermined feminism. Moreover, women themselves arc subverting the movement’s original goals: The most stellar students at Yale dress like sluts, and Hillary Clinton, the woman who might have the greatest chance of becoming President, elected to stand by her philandering husband. As far as Dowd is concerned, the prospects for women are overwhelmingly bleak.

Readers of Dowd’s op-ed columns in the New York Times will find nothing new in this book. Her better-grounded sections merely reassemble other writers’ gender-related “Most Emailed” articles from the past year. Again and again, Dowd draws on favorite themes from her past editorials, including several fully intact op-eds about the Monica Lewinsky scandal from 1999, her Pulitzer Prize-winning year. Fluff, however, predominates, as she more commonly relies upon reader mail, pop culture, public scandals, t-shirt slogans, her friends, boyfriends, fellow reporters, and her own, often catty, stories to illustrate her point about the failure of feminism’s promise. After she cycles back to Condi or Hillary or Martha for the umpteenth time, one feels that even she doesn’t know where she is going with all of this.

Though Dowd, who often mentions her Irish Catholic family, devotes little space to religion, the implications of her argument for Jewish women are all too clear Early on she cites research demonstrating that men would rather marry women in jobs subordinate to their own. Given the statistics that Jews, on average, are more highly educated and have more prestigious jobs than non-Jews, one would expect men’s preference for less accomplished women to penalize Jewish women more profoundly. And indeed, the numbers bear this out. The 1991 National Jewish Population Survey showed that Jewish women were exactly twice as likely as non-Jewish women to remain single throughout their childbearing years—15% to 7.5%. If the feminist movement is, as Dowd claims, a “cruel hoax” that lured women into thinking they could have it all, then Jewish women—the best-educated women in America—are the most cruelly tricked of all.

While Dowd might posit that Jewish feminists have been deceived by feminism’s promise, Rabbi Jack Wertheimer claims that the women themselves are to blame. In the October 2005 issue of Commentary magazine, Wertheimer, provost and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, insensitively blames the childlessness of Jewish women on their focus on higher education and career advancement during their fertile years. What Dowd readily acknowledges but Wertheimer does not, is that young, professional women overwhelmingly do not want to choose career over family. Those Jewish men who are reluctant to accept their female counterparts as equals—or superiors—are forcing Jewish women into that choice.

Judaism is certainly open to talking the long view of things, but given the current, depressing situation of women in general and Jewish women in particular, must we wait one hundred thousand years until the Y-chromosome disappears and men are rendered truly unnecessary before we can have it all?

Tammy Hepps is a software developer who lives in New York City.