This is a story of five women. Five women are suspended between two impulses. The mechanism of society and upbringing has predisposed them to fulfill their role of patriarchial feminity while the exposure to these early works of feminist literature is an incitement to reject this societal impetus. However, the college though exposing them to an education that can be a catalyst against the societal expectation placed on them is complicit in the discouragement to do just that.
Professor Chip Knowles an unseen male character teaches women's history. As if this does not illustrate the dilemma clearly enough Wasserstein goes further when Muffet recounts her conversation with the professor, "Chip’s wife, Libby, graduated first in her class from Vassar. When I told Chip I was a senior and didn’t know what I’d be doing next year, Chip told me that Libby doesn’t really spend the day mopping and catching tadpoles with Chip, Jr. She may be mopping with her hands, but with her mind she’s reliving the water imagery in the Faerie Queene” It seems important to note that the piece his wife is reflecting on is "The Faerie Queene." Since the dragon is only defeated by virtue Professor Knowles reinforces that she in her role as mother has chosen the virtuous choice. This enlightened male professor of women's history illustrates how their education is still secondary to their primary function as wife and mother.
Man's Voice (The School President) is the most clearly patronizing voice of the male dominated society. "Am I saying that anatomy is destiny? No, it is not destiny. Providing a setting in which these subtle constraints can be overcome is particularly the mission of a college for women." Although the voice is an attempt to inspire the assumption of the speaker is that womanhood is a deficiency that must be overcome. The result of that condescending encouragement is a deep anxiety, a disquiet that forces restlessness by its demand that uncommon women be super heroes. Throughout the play Man's voice presents this both implicitly, "The college fosters the ability to accept and even welcomes the necessity of strenuous and sustained effort in any area of endeavor," and also explicitly "The real problem for many educated women is the difficulty they have in recognizing whether they have been a success... Women will be part-time mothers, part-time workers, part-time cooks, and part-time intellectuals [...] Just like the pot of honey that kept renewing itself and educated woman's capacity for giving is not exhausted but stimulated by demands."
There are two other male characters that play into this complicity as well the Fathers and Robert. The fathers ostensibly are the ones paying for the Holyoke education, yet the pledge that the "girls" are saving themselves for Yale show that in the eyes of the family their virtue lies not in the education they are receiving but in the role they are to fulfill at home. Robert too is revealed to repeat this with his success and parties in which Samantha is expected to succeed vicariously.
There are of course the men not addressed directly within the play, all men. The unconscious privilege that a system designed for you allows. All men are represented here, because all men are benefitting from the system. As Rita points out men are recognized as experts even as the speak to women on issues addressing women. "The only problem with menstruation for men is that some sensitive schmuck would write about it for the Village Voice and he would become the new expert on women's inner life."
Over and over again the play circles back to two key lines. "I don't know what I am going to do," and "When I am [age]." These two recurrent ideas illustrate the condescension of society toward young women. This confusion between their role in the nuclear family unit and their role in the wider public sphere is presented as an attribute of their immaturity rather than as a consequence of the insatiable demands placed on them by a patriarchal society.
This play is not written then for women to commiserate about the problem. Instead, it is a polemic against that burden. By illustrating how each of the five women have been damaged she convicts the entire system for its injustice.
This is best understood by looking at the women through Galen's Four Humors. Muffet, Rita, Holly, and Kate each represent one of these archetypes. Muffet is the Sanguine, Rita the Phlegmatic, Holly the melancholic, and Kate the Choleric.
Muffet's nature is to be amorous and carefree. She is presented as the optimistic encourager of the group. She plays the role of ditzy fun friend while recognizing it does not bring any fulfillment "I feel so so confused. I mean this chick is an obvious imbecile. But I didn't think she was entirely wrong either. I guess the truth is men are very important to me... Sometimes I know who I am when I feel attractive. Other times it makes me feel very shallow like I am not Rosie the Riveter. I suppose this isn't a very impressive sentiment, but I would really like to meet my prince. Even a few princes. And I wouldn't give up being a person." Though she meets the society demand of women to "Smile" she is left an anxiety that questions what submission to that ideal of feminity has achieved for her.
Rita is the living embodiment of overthinking. The enormous nature of the world and the challenges it presents have left her in an avoidant anxiety. She is a lost soul because there are no solid footholds. "The New York Times, Walter Cronkite, all the buildings and roads, the cities, philosphy, government, history, religion, shopping malls, everything I can name is male. When I see things this way, it becomes very obvious that it is very easy to feel alienated and alone for the simple reason that I've never been included because I came into the world without a penis." In adulthood she is still a coward avoiding the future.
Holly is the most introspective of the five lead characters. She has desires, and sees them for both their positive and negative both. "Yes, except if I fall in love it would be because I thought someone was better than me. And if I really thought someone was better than me, I'd give them everything and I'd hate them for my living through them." As an adult she remains unsettled and has still not left graduate school. Holly has an anxiety of being an incomplete entity which results in an apathy toward progress.
Kate is ambitious and driven. Yet she is part of a society that praises those characters in men while shaming them in women. So she is trapped by her aspiration and her need to remain being seen as feminine. "Carter, I'm afraid that I'm so directed that I'll grow up to be a cold efficient lady in a grey business suit. Suddenly, there I'll be, an Uncommon Woman ready to meet the future with steadiness, gaiety, and a profession and what's more I'll organize it all with time to blow dry my hair every morning." In the end Kate has all the success of the uncommon woman and yet settles for Kent who still condescends to her.
Samantha like the other four women serves an important character as well. Samantha has chosen the "other path" the traditional woman. Like Professor Knowles' wife she has rejected the promises of feminism. "Robert says I never grew up into a woman. That I am sort of a child woman. I've been reading a lot of books recently about women who are wives of artists and actors and how they believe their husbands are geniuses, and they are just a little talented. Well, that what I am. Just a little talented at a lot of things. That's why I want to be with Robert and all of you. I want to be with someone who makes a public statement." This rejection does not leave the audience with any sense that her life appears more fulfilled.
Wassertine's goal then is for the play is to illustrate to the patriarchial society itself the burden that it places on the women. The inevitable end of this is an ingrained mistrust of the woman to herself. No woman is allowed to be confident in herself. As Rita says, "Do you know what Samantha? If I could be anyone of us, first I would be me. That's me without any embarassment or neurosis - and since that is practically impossible, my second choice is, I'd like to be you." This impairment afflicts every single character, including, in the eleventh hour reveal, Mrs Plumm, who is the model of feminine sensibility.
At the begining of the last scene Man's Voice fades and is replaced by Woman's voice, "Women still encounter overwhelming obstacles to achievement and recognition despite gradual abolition of political and legal disabilities. Society has trained women from childhood to accept a limited set of options and restricted levels of inspiration."
Wasserstein does not offer any solutions to these issues. Instead at the final climax of this play she uses this paragragh to ask the viewer if she has proven the statement to be true. If the statement is true then western society is found guilty of its injustice against women. As a woman enters adulthood the constructs passed from one generation to the next through family, education, civilization, and religion have already played their role in shaping her into the person they are and will become.
Despite almost 40 years having passed since the play was written Wasserstein's question remains relevant to be asked today. Perhaps more achievements have been made, and more disabilities have been aboloished; but the work is far from complete. Women are still expected to desire their traditional role in the marriage relationship. In the heteronormative majority women are still expected to be caretakers of their home, children, and spouses; the mental and emotional labor of a relationship still falls primarily and often exclusively on the woman. Women are still being asked to choose between their own desire and the desire of men. "I don't know what I am going to do," to navigate that space between her own goals and her role demanded by these old definitions of femininity remains a central challenge and point of anxiety to women today. The expectation to put off their own desires to some unnamed later point in time repeated in the "When I am [age]" lines are no less relevant.
Until women no longer encounter overwhelming obstacles to achievement and recognition in a male dominated society then the production of this play remains a culturally meaniful act. These five women are as representative of the challenges facing women in 2020 as they were in the challenges facing women in 1980.