For 30 years, America has been turning out gifted girls—athletes, student leaders, artists and writers, science whizzes. Cheered on by parents, teachers, and coaches, they go to college and universities and do brilliantly. Routinely, they head off from graduate and professional schools to demanding positions in business, philanthropy, medicine, the law. They do everything asked of them and more, but unaccountably, as they draw closer to the vocations for which they’ve long been preparing, a cloud gathers over them. By turns hectoring and anxious, a gloomy chorus announces that success will deplete their romantic prospects and cheat them out of the families they want to have. It seems that Virginia Woolf’s imagined adversary, the Victorian Angel in the House—she who always put her own needs second—rises to flap triumphantly over the times, despite Woolf’s hope that modern women would kill her.
Anna Fels, a practicing psychiatrist in New York City, has arrived to wrestle with the Angel. In Necessary Dreams, she mixes the empirical findings of social science, her own observations from 20 years of clinical work, anecdote, and cultural analysis to question why and how ambition is leached out of American women’s lives. She uncovers a quiet crisis in the inner lives of the kind of educated, talented women who are her patients and her peers. Whether you believe women are as embattled as Fels does, her book reframes the struggle for equality in a powerful way. She goes beyond debates over employment discrimination, harassment, and the problems of working mothers. What she’s after are the buried psychological debilities that afflict women in their working lives outside their homes: the ways in which, she maintains, they feel compelled in a thousand different ways to take themselves out of the picture.