You might find that posing this reasonable and sensitive question to an actual woman nets few helpful answers and many awkward public encounters. You might find the average woman on the street either doesn't know, isn't willing to share or perhaps is just hard of hearing.
Fortunately for the concerned citizen, there is fiction to turn to for a creditable update. The recent short story collections Beautiful Girls, by Beth Ann Bauman, and Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived, by Lily Tuck, give us a modern, if sometimes clashing, look at women of all ages, classes and circumstances.
The stories in Beautiful Girls spend more time with the young, the down on their luck, and, most of all, the hopeful. Bauman's own career is a practice in optimism. She is a graduate of the creative writing program at the UA and was recently featured in The New York Times for finally cracking into the publishing biz after years of haunting the cafes and writers' workshops of New York City. A testament to this persistence appears in her leading women, all of whom are all hunting for happiness, usually in the form of beings who wear tight Levi's and flash dreamy smiles.
In "Eden," Eve asks, "When will it be my turn?" (for true love, she means), and then dives into a frantic cruise-line liaison with an aging hippie with dubious credentials. In "Safeway," George Ann ponders whether or not she is ready for an across-the-driveway relationship as she carts through a blacked-out Tucson grocery store. And in "Wash, Rinse, Spin," Libby, reeling from loneliness, an empty job and an ailing father, tries earnestly to answer her self-imposed question, "How am I coping?"
A layer of sugarcoats these stories; sometimes it is applied with just the right amount of restraint, but sometimes it becomes cloying. Bauman is best, interestingly enough, when she inhabits the minds of teenage girls, as in "True" and the titular story. In the latter, Dani ponders her talent for driving adolescent boys to distraction and the significance behind it: "I wondered about love and was there a right love and a wrong love--was getting naked with a cute boy and watching his eyes soften ...--was that a little like the real thing?" This is one of the revealingly honest moments in Beautiful Girls, with its sweetly ditzy 17-year-old wisdom and without a reliance on sentimental moralizing.
Sentiment is absolutely the last thing you'll find in Lily Tuck's very different collection. Tuck's women are, as a rule, older, wilier, more cautious and more reserved. They speak with words that deflect attention from the real issue; they hide their secrets and fears, and pull away even from their husbands. Tuck writes a tough, parsed-down prose in the style of minimalist authors Ann Beattie and Mary Robison. Too often, her stories are so minimal that they barely make an impression on the page, but at their best, they simmer from an undercurrent of distress and confrontation, as in "Verdi," in which Penny quietly but resolutely rejects her former dependence of men--she spits out a piece of sausage that a lover has half-jokingly forced her to eat.
A useful comparison between these books can be made in the one scene that both authors write--a couple trying to have sex in the sea. Both couples fail--apparently, this maneuver is impossible in literature--but for Bauman's heroine, the attempt is merely frustrating, while in Tuck's story, it is an act full of aggression and fright. The frequent fear of drowning in her pages evokes Kate Chopin's novel, The Awakening, as well as Virginia Woolf's real suicide, and is consistent with her obvious affinity for the feminist literary tradition. In "Fortitude," the characters talk about Sylvia Plath, and "La Mayonette," tropes liberally off of "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
As opposite as these two books may seem, however, it is very possible to look at them as companion pieces. It might well be that the emotionally callused women in Limbo started out as the bubbly and adventuresome teenagers in Beautiful Girls. Between them, the full spectrum of the female condition is revealed: Women first want nothing more than to find a man, and then they want nothing but to get rid of him. When they are alone they crave love and security; when they get this they promptly fight for their old independence.
What should we conclude, then? It seems clear enough to this concerned citizen that what women want is very simply whatever they don't have. The reader should by all means feel free to share and spread the news of this important discovery.