It’s a pressing question: with the many freedoms engendered by women’s lib, how should women lead their lives? As homemakers, professionals, or both? As virgins, sluts, or . . . ? In Rapture, Blister, Burn, now playing at the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago, there is little consensus. Directly discussing feminist theory (and showing an impressive display of knowledge by the playwright), the four female characters debate the myriad ways one can answer such questions.
Catherine Croll (Jennifer Coombs), a successful academic who studies pornography and sexuality, comes home to live with her ailing mother. She reconnects with her friends Don (Mark Montgomery) and Gwen (Karen James Woditsch), now married, who were her peers in graduate school. Catherine and Gwen share a “grass is greener” sentiment. Through a life devoted to others, Gwen regrets having let go of her career. Catherine, while professionally successful, doesn’t have a family and worries about being alone after her mother dies. They swap lives for a summer (Catherine has fallen in love with Don, whom she used to date), but in the end, they discover they landed with their lives for good reason.
But is it really so impossible to “have it all?”
The play doesn’t represent the many women who do successfully strike the delicate balance of achieving prominence in their careers while having stable family lives. Or, conversely (and shockingly!) women who don’t want both. Nonetheless, the question of how to navigate a career and family is certainly one that many women face. The Goodman’s dramaturg, Neena Arndt, quotes the prominent feminist Gloria Steinem in the program notes: “I’ve yet to be on a [college] campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.”
Catherine and Gwen generally embody the motherhood-versus-career questions of second-wave feminism. Other characters in the play fill in the perspectives of the first and third waves. Avery (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason), Gwen and Don’s college-age babysitter, introduces the younger generation’s perspective: relationships and sexuality are fluid and should be enjoyed. Seventy-year-old Alice (Mary Ann Thebus), Catherine’s mother, bluntly reveals her confusion about feminism: “for being feminists, you two sure worry a lot about boys.”
Shouldn’t scholars of feminism have higher standards than that?
And higher morals, for that matter?
Playwright Gionfriddo shows the blind spots for each perspective. Avery, the voice of the up-and-coming generation, though confident in an open relationship with her boyfriend, becomes less assured when that relationship becomes long-distance. Catherine, though a career powerhouse, falls for the unhappily married Don, whose work ethic and career aspirations are set so low she confesses she will be embracing “ambivalence and mediocrity” to be with him. Come on, Catherine! Shouldn’t scholars of feminism have higher standards than that? And higher morals, for that matter? Or should they? Perhaps they’re just people, like everyone else.
So, more questions remain. How should anyone with an appreciation or advanced knowledge of women’s issues behave? What should she (or he) act like, or look like? What things should she or he say? Though the war rages on for reproductive rights and equal pay, an equally important struggle is the private one of reconciling the many voices—whether gender normative or otherwise—asking what being a woman means to you.
There may not be answers here—from the play or from me—but any call for consensus would be an insidious one. After all, what’s the point of agreement other than to dissolve differences? Though a plurality of viewpoints may be socially and politically difficult, how could any single prescription account for the diversity of life experiences women encounter?
To help carry on the discussion, here is a list of books—including a few that the playwright shared with the production’s artistic team—that explore the multifaceted history of feminism with as many rich, provocative, and contrasting viewpoints as you have time to read.
Brush Up on Your Waves: Seminal Texts in Theory and in Practice
Feminist Fantasies, by Phyllis Schlafly
The one person most responsible for the defeat of the equal rights amendment is nothing if not articulate, cogent, and persuasive, as page after page of this selection of her syndicated columns, statements before congressional committees, and other short writings amply attests.
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan
Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975, by Barbara J. Love
This is the first comprehensive directory to document many of the founders and leaders of what is now often referred to as the second wave of feminism, between 1963 and 1975.
Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler
Life So Far, by Betty Friedan
There’s a reason Friedan’s books sell: her characteristic technique—summarized in the title of a journalism course she’s taught as “Writing from Personal Truth and Social Observation”—makes her work involving, even for readers who disagree with her ideas.
The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family, by Madeleine M. Kunin
If “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” was the rallying cry for the 1970s feminist movement, then “But Not Far Enough” could be the vanguard’s chagrined chant now. From salary equity to corporate and civic leadership positions, the goals of the second wave of feminism are still far from being met.
The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir
Sex, Art, and American Culture, by Camille Paglia
“Sexual Personae seeks to demonstrate the unity and continuity of Western culture,” Paglia writes in her preface to that great and now famous work; “something that has inspired little belief in the period since before World War One.”
Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining our Future, by Barbara J. Berg
The history of feminism in America is measured in waves: the first swept in the era of suffragists; the second catapulted women’s liberation onto the national consciousness.
The Women’s Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third-Wave Feminism, by Leslie L. Heywood
Third-wave feminism—that is, the evolution of the women’s movement since the “second-wave” feminism of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan—began in 1991 with Anita Hill’s appearance at the Senate confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court.
Recommended reading from playwright Gina Gionfriddo and dramaturg Jonathan Green:
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy
With the rise of such magazines as Maxim and FHM and the popular video series Girls Gone Wild, raunch culture has never been more mainstream. The reason, Levy posits, is because women are getting in on the act and participating in their own exploitation.
The Porning of America, by Carmine Sarracino and Kevin M. Scott
Nearly 50 years after Betty Friedan transformed the lives of American housewives, Coontz (Marriage, a History, 2005) offers a biography of Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique (1963).
Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, by Stephanie Staal
An immersion in feminist literature clarified Staal’s personal philosophies as an undergraduate at Barnard College in the 1990s and shaped her subsequent career as journalist and writer.
Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both, by Laura Sessions Stepp
“Hooking up” is a common phrase among young people today, but as journalist Stepp (author of Our Last Best Shot, 2000) discovered, the term is nebulous in meaning. Covering a range of sexual behavior, hooking up can mean anything from kissing to intercourse, as well as everything in between.
Vagina: A New Biography, by Naomi Woolf
It is often said, however jokingly, that a man thinks with his penis. Influential feminist writer Wolf contends that a woman thinks with her vagina.