Originally created 07/05/99

Superwoman taking off her cape



Remember the myth of Superwoman, a descriptive title that became widespread in the early 1970s for a woman who did it all?

Remember that Jane of all trades, able to leap tall kitchens while changing diapers and holding down an exhausting job?

Well, she finally may be disappearing.

Hollis Chalem-Brown, department chair of office systems technology at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., admits she was a model Superwoman almost three decades ago.

"I tried to be the perfect wife, mother, teacher, homemaker and lover," said Ms. Chalem-Brown, 52.

She was married to the late Robert Chalem and when her husband was alive, Ms. Chalem-Brown did what Superwomen do: Already the possessor of a bachelor's degree in business, she juggled two teaching jobs, went to college at night, earned her master's degree in business in l973, ran the household and spent "quality time" with her sons.

"My husband helped me with everything but it wasn't a 50-50 sharing -- and I didn't expect it," said Ms. Chalem-Brown. Eventually, she also had to take care of her husband, who was ill. He died in 1976, when Ms. Chalem-Brown was 29 and her sons were 5 and 6.

Still acting as Superwoman, Ms. Chalem-Brown intensified her efforts to provide for her family and earned her doctorate in vocational and technical education in 1979 -- while teaching and running the household.

"My children were latchkey kids before the term was invented, but I felt I was developing a good life for them," she said.

In 1991, she married Bruce Brown, owner of Gourmet Express Inc., in Northbrook, Ill., "a company that delivers meals so Superwoman doesn't have to cook anymore," Ms. Chalem-Brown observed.

"Superwoman is fading away, taking off her cape," she said. "She says out loud that she needs balance in her life and even tells her employer and her mate."

There are other reasons Superwoman's on her way out: "Women and men, especially men with young children, have formed a new coalition to create public- and private-sector policies that enable them to attend to both their work and families," said Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, a national organization based in Chicago dedicated to women's economic advancement.

"Today's young women believe equality is possible, though it's not here yet," said Jean E. Rhodes, associate professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Illinois at ChampaignUrbana. "Men are taking up some of the household burden and that's why Superwoman's disappearing."

Ms. Rhodes, 37, is married to Dane Wittrup, professor of chemical engineering at the university. They have three children under the age of 7.

"I've never tried to be a Superwoman," said the professor, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology. "The way we solve the Superwoman problem is by having child care and household help. The time not spent cleaning up gives us time with our kids."

Superwoman was a "construct of guilt and ambivalence and women were played upon by people not sympathetic to them," said Suzanne Braun Levine, a New York media critic and author of the forthcoming book, The Daddy Track: How Men Are Reinventing Fatherhood.

Many women "pretended they could do everything, so society wouldn't punish them for having a job," said Mrs. Levine, 57, formerly editor of Ms. magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. She's married to Robert Levine, an entertainment lawyer. Their son Joshua is 15 and daughter Joanna, 13.

"More and more men and women understand you can't have it all," said Mrs. Levine, who says she stopped trying to be Superwoman "when I was in my late 40s and developed a `don't mess with me' attitude."

Her daughter, she's certain, won't even consider being Superwoman. "Joanna knows there's a different way to live," her mother said. "It's called freedom."

(Carol Kleiman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.)