| April 11, 1999, Sunday
In Women's Groups, Back to 'Girl Talk'
By RACHEL LEHMANN-HAUPT (NYT) 2144 wordsIT'S a Saturday evening in the East Village, and the streets are pulsing with bar-hopping young people. But Candace Walsh and her posse of girlfriends -- most of them artists and writers in their 20's and 30's, mostly single -- have gathered in her one-bedroom apartment for Beauty Parlor Night.
The coffee table is scattered with powder puffs, nail files and hot-pink Hard Candy nail polish. A tape of 80's pop songs blasts in the background, as Shelby Gates, a freelance photographer, describes how a police officer recently ejected her from a subway station for conducting a photo shoot without a permit.
''Isn't that annoying,'' she says, smearing a mask of moisturizing lotion on Tiffany Licorish's face.
The talk ricochets from bad bosses to recent books to body hair. Although the monthly Beauty Parlor Nights are distant descendants of consciousness-raising groups, Ms. Walsh, a writer, drew on a different inspiration when organizing the gatherings: the slumber parties of her adolescence. Surveying the roomful of wet toenails and masked faces, someone asks skeptically, ''Has feminism taught us anything?''
''Yes,'' replies Barbara Stone, a makeup artist who works for Bobbi Brown. ''It's taught us to take care of ourselves. It's the new 'Our Bodies, Ourselves.' ''
Part career networking and romance therapy, part retro kaffeeklatsch, a new genre of women's groups has been emerging, one that emphasizes the role of gossip and ''girl talk'' as much as weightier subjects in the life of the 90's woman. The gatherings draw from such post-feminist touchstones as ''The View,'' the all-woman daytime talk show that mixes serious news with off-color sex chat, and ''Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,'' the best-selling novel that tells of a 40-year-old career woman who longs for the female friendships that her mother enjoyed.
The new groups meet everywhere, from Brooklyn lofts to Connecticut living rooms to the Cosmos Club in Washington. Not all meet in person. Web-based women's communities have sprung up, like iVillage and Chickclick, where recent discussion topics included Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and ''Underwear: Granny Style, Bikini or Thong?''
''I live in an all-men's world so I never get to do girl talk,'' said Dr. Florence Haseltine, 56, the director of the Center for Population Research, who started the monthly Cosmos Club dinners for high-ranking women in the Clinton Administration in 1992. ''In a group with men, women tend to feel they have to talk about more weighty topics. But one of the biggest weighty topics is that women in Washington don't gossip enough. What I mean is exchange information about the unwritten rules and about whom you can and cannot trust.''
''Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'' by Rebecca Wells has inspired close to 35 Ya-Ya groups across the country, patterned on the sisterhood portrayed in the 1996 novel, which has more than two million copies in print.
Leighanne Bramlett, 26, an aspiring actress from Louisiana who moved to New York a year ago, formed a Ya-Ya group with two other New Yorkers she met through a Web site devoted to the book. ''New York is so cutthroat, and there are so many distractions,'' Ms. Bramlett said. ''It's hard to establish the level of friendship that you had with girls when you were a kid. Our group is about unconditional friendship.''
A nostalgia for the bonding and values of preadolescence -- when, some studies have shown, girls exhibit self-confidence they later lose -- flavors many of the new women's groups. The same sensibility spawned the ''girl power'' slogan of the Spice Girls and postfeminist zines like Smile and Act Nice, Wench, and Bust (''the voice of the new girl order,'' it calls itself), all of whose Web sites are linked to Chickclick.
Nikol Lore, 28, the editor in chief of Smile and Act Nice, is planning a group of women's slumber parties around the country this summer, all connected through her Web site. ''It's an educated return to those girlie gatherings of our adolescence,'' she said. ''As we get older, women get away from that kind of bonding.''
Meanwhile, Abby Weintraub, 28, a book-jacket designer at Random House, has been the host of a regular Ladies Night at her apartment in Greenwich Village for the last two years. ''In college, we were together all the time in groups, but now that we're older and more people are pairing up, it's important to set aside a time to be alone with the girls,'' Ms. Weintraub said.
And recently, Belinda Miller, 33, a deejay at WFMU radio in Jersey City, organized an all-women's clothing swap for 40 friends at Maxwell's in Hoboken. She plans to make it a yearly tradition. ''It's not that we want to be our grandmothers and go back to single-sex activities,'' Ms. Miller said. ''It's just that it's important to be with the girls and talk about goofy stuff and walk around in your bra and underwear.''
Claiming a right to such indulgences without being accused of being reactionary is a typical stance in this post-feminist moment. The agenda of the new groups is a mix of the everyday and the frivolous -- parenthood advice and beauty tips -- but usually not the political.
''It used to be about getting angry -- now it's much more practical,'' said Nancy Evans, the editor in chief of iVillage, which recently sold stock to the public for the first time and saw its founders become millionaires, on paper at least. ''Women don't have time to gab at the beauty parlor anymore, and they can't meet over the backyard fence, because the person on the other side is at work.''
Marla Walker, 30, a producer for Children's Television Workshop Online, and Caroline Schutz, also 30, a musician, have convened the Williamsburg Ladies Club in Brooklyn for two and a half years. They chose their old-fashioned name to distance themselves from doctrinaire feminists who spell ''women'' with a ''y.'' They insist they are not a consciousness-raising group. ''Our consciousness is already raised,'' Ms. Schutz said. ''We know there is still inequality, but this is more about just being with each other alone.''
At the same time, the Williamsburg Ladies Club -- five of whose members met recently for conversation that ranged from Monica Lewinsky to venereal diseases to foot ailments -- insists it is not just a modern-day canasta club or tea party. ''If you asked any of us if we were feminists, we would all say yes, but we would just never call it a group with a women's agenda,'' Ms. Schutz said. ''Of course, we do talk about important women's issues such as trading health information. We're much more connected to consciousness-raising groups than we are to Tupperware parties.''
Ms. Walker said: ''Now that we have our jobs and our freedom to do anything, we're learning that it's impossible to have it all. So talking among ourselves is a way of choosing other roles. There's a certain amount of intimacy in our girl time that let's you talk about anything.''
''Girl'' and ''girl talk'' are still loaded words for many women, especially those over 35 who keenly remember their demeaning use. But many younger women embrace the word ''girl'' and its constellation of associations -- from the power of women's sexuality to dominate men, as argued by Camille Paglia, to the warm and fuzzy memories of girlhood friendships.
Susan Faludi, the feminist author, argues that young feminists today lack a focused political mission. ''One depressing response is to retreat into girl life and shut the door,'' she said. ''It seems lame to me because it doesn't lead to anything of particular significance. In its origin feminism had nothing to do with lipstick.''
But Peggy Orenstein, the author of the 1994 book ''Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap'' (Anchor Books), would argue differently. ''Girl talk is a way of measuring your own experience,'' ''It's about letting your hair down in a place where you're not taking on a role as a worker or a wife or a mother.'' Last year, she began interviewing small groups of women for a book about the choices women make from their mid-20's to mid-40's.
''I saw in these groups that women have a yearning to connect with other women,'' she said. ''And whether women believe it or not, girl talk is also inherently political, and inherently subversive, because historically there's been so little value placed on what it means to be a caretaker or a wife or a female worker.''
Whether as inspiration or as mirror of a trend already under way, ''The View,'' with its five hosts, all women of different generations, has built a strong following. The show was inspired by Virginia Graham's ''Girl Talk'' of the 1960's. ''The show's format is somewhat old-fashioned,'' said Bill Geddie, co-executive producer with Barbara Walters. ''But I think it's a sign that women have come full circle. Now that women have proved that they can hold their own in a man's world, it's safe, and there is a need to have a show where women act like women. It's O.K. to use the words 'girl talk' again.''
''It's a sign of progress that women can do a serious story about women in Afghanistan and then talk about nail polish in the same show,'' he added.
Five or 10 years ago, the format might have made serious newswomen worry about appearing too frivolous. But now even Ms. Walters lets her hair down with ''the ladies,'' as her fellow hosts call each other. The day before Ms. Walters interviewed Ms. Lewinsky for ''20/20,'' Meredith Vieira handed out thongs to the other women on the show. Ms. Walters put hers on her head. ''Does it have a look?'' she said.
Even traditional feminists are embracing the more lighthearted and celebratory tone in women's groups today. For a brunch tomorrow to celebrate the new ownership of Ms. magazine, the invitation asks women to gather to discuss ''money, power, liberty, politics, facts 'n' facelifts.''
Gloria Steinem, the magazine's founder, maintains that 70's-era women's groups had plenty in common with today's. ''The early consciousness-raising groups were fun and full of jokes and bawdy and crazy and serious,'' she said. ''They were everything. But every generation deserves a language of their own.''
Earlier this year, a group of Connecticut women who used to gather in the 70's to support one another as they began careers and families reconvened after a break of two decades. The third in their monthly series of meetings, called Conversations 1999, drew more than 20 women last week to the West Hartford home of Jacky Werner, a teacher. The women ranged in age from 55 to 76. Earlier in the day, some had attended the funeral of one of the group's original members, who had died of cancer. The conversation turned to whether the women were prepared for a sudden illness.
''The prospect makes me think about taking time for other stuff than just my career, like for my children and my husband,'' said Jane Kuhn, a travel agent.
They touched on the war in Kosovo. ''There's so much history we don't understand,'' said Selma Lobel, a former director of the Hartford Chapter of Planned Parenthood.
''And we have a woman in charge of the weapons this time, and it's no better,'' added Roberta Prescott, who owns a public-relations company.
Asked how this year's meetings differed from those in the 70's, Ms. Werner said, ''The earlier group was about learning to reprogram ourselves for careers.''
Irene Berman, who owns a foreign-language translation business, added, ''We are more relaxed now, and we're not juggling a hundred different choices.''
Peggy Shapiro, an administrator at the University of Connecticut Law
School, turned to her old friends. ''People have done what we were
working for in that early group,'' she said. ''Now we want the