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I Am Woman, Hear Me Vacuum

Have women changed that much in 50 years?

Last week was the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking work, The Feminist Mystique. I’m sure you were all celebrating like crazed peahens, weren’t you? I know I was!

My first reaction to this milestone was to try and remember if I had ever read this very important tome. I started to keep a reading log not too long ago because I read a lot and, after a while, it all runs together. But 50 years ago I was only 9 years old. I’m pretty sure I was more interested in candy necklaces and Nancy Drew back then.

Later, I had a college boyfriend whose mother earnestly pressed the book into my arms and told me I MUST read it. But with lipstick smeared on her front teeth, I couldn’t focus on the significance of the book. Plus, the romance with her son (the boyfriend) was waning because he wouldn’t wear deodorant and smelled as if he had liverwurst tucked under each arm. Yes, I was more superficial in those days.

The world Betty Friedan explored in 1963 was filled with the unfulfilled—women who were unhappy with being just housewives, women who wanted more without really knowing what “more” might be. If you had told those early 1960s women that in 50 years women would be doctors, lawyers and astronauts, they might not have believed you. Yet here we are in 2013: Women have careers that were inconceivable a half-century ago, but they’re still being paid less than men. Not only that, but when something goes wrong in a family with two wage earners, it is usually the woman whose career suffers for it.

Like many women growing up in the '60s and '70s, I took the nascent women’s movement for granted. It allowed me to go bra-less, which, in retrospect, was not a good look. For anyone. I was pretty oblivious to the kinds of restrictions earlier generations of women had to deal with, or perhaps it was the conceit of youth that I thought I could be whoever I wanted to be.

Still, if one were to go back to that time in pop culture, one would be confused by the anthems both for and against women doing whatever women damn well wanted to do. On one side, there was the backlash against “feminism” with insipid songs like "For the Love of Him" urging us to make him your reason for living, give all the love you can give him.” If you preferred country music, you were hanging with Tammy Wynette and her affirming "Stand By Your Man," which urged all women to “ … forgive him, even though he’s hard to understand.”

The flipside was Helen Reddy’s obnoxious power ballad of 1972, “I Am Woman,” trumpeting " … if I have to, I can do anything. I am strong. I am invincible, I am woman." We also had the much-parodied perfume commercial, featuring an elegantly attired woman, wiggling toward the camera, promising “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man.” With both sides hammering us, how did we ever make it through that time with any sense of self, or any idea of who we really were? By being oblivious, no doubt.

In the early '90s, I was raising my toddlers and the world was coming out of the Reagan years, still obsessed with other people’s careers. It was usually the first question out of someone’s mouth: “So, what do you do for a living?” It was a question I loathed because I was a “stay-at-home” mom. When I’d hear that question, I’d have to make the split-second decision to fabricate an outrageous job for myself or meekly respond I was a housewife, a diaper changer, and a banana masher. Here are some of my best answers, given quickly before sprinting off on some imagined errand:

            “I’m a mercenary.”

            “I do government work that I can’t really talk about (wink-wink).”

            “I just retired from the circus.”

When I would respond honestly, the questioner would inevitably get that glazed look, then THEY would sprint off on their own little errand—a trip to the punch bowl perhaps. I hated the fact that I felt boring for staying home with my boys. I wanted to shout out my many triumphs in the workplace, my publishing prizes, my trips to the podium on Oscar night—all imagined, of course.

My defensiveness wore off over time, as I found other rebellious women to huddle with—women who had chosen to stay home and raise their children, either because they could afford to do so financially or because they felt compelled, upon birthing them, to raise them up as well. It wasn’t until the boys were in school full-time that I once again fashioned a working life for myself, albeit part-time.

So, 50 years later, have the lives and careers of women changed that much? Women are now running corporations. The ban on women in combat was just lifted and women make up about half of all medical and law students. Girls now have an equal opportunity to play competitive sports, and sexual harassment, which didn’t even have a name in the '70s, is now recognized and punishable by law. 

It would seem though, that because so many “feminist” ideas are taken for granted in 2013, women have sloughed off that label and no longer refer to themselves as being “feminist.” Take singer/dancer Katy Perry’s recent statement: “I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” HUH? Tell that to 14-year-old Malala, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the face by the Taliban for championing education for girls.

I would hope in 2013, women feel good about their career choices, whether they work at home tending to the zillions of jobs a mom has to do or whether they are part of our new normal, the dual-earner family. 

There is one thing that never changes for women/mothers. No matter which road we choose—stay-at-home mom or working mom—our constant companion is a truckload of guilt. I'll know women have truly made it when we’ve left that behind.

Norma Blake February 25, 2013 at 01:51 PM
You are right, Marsia. There is still much work to be done. If local women are interested in reproductive rights, economic justice, ending sex driscrimination, stopping violence against women and other issues affecting women, I invite them to join South Jersey NOW-Alice Paul Chapter that meets at the First Baptist Church, 19 W. Main St., Moorestown (left side entrance) on the 2nd Wed of each month at 7 PM. Our website is www.southjerseynow.org.
Ross Chatham February 25, 2013 at 02:23 PM
A pro-abortion group meeting at a church? That's pretty ironic...
Just Wondering February 25, 2013 at 04:05 PM
Do you support the rights of ProLife women to hold elected office too, like our local elected women here in Moorestown? Will you fight for their voice to be represented? Or do you only fight for the women who believe in your agenda?
Marlene Starik February 25, 2013 at 04:21 PM
Sad you guys tie abortion into this. Norma, you could get so much more done and have so many more people lined up with you if you werent pushing "reproductive rights" as a main issue. The rest most of us seem to agree on. That one just divides, even among women.
ML February 25, 2013 at 04:34 PM
Reproductive rights are about a lot more than just abortion. A church can't support my right to quality reproductive healthcare? Awesome.
Jean Perry February 25, 2013 at 04:57 PM
"Ifyou had told those early 1960s women that in 50 years women would be doctors, lawyers and astronauts, they might not have believed you." Actually, we who were adults in the 1960s were very optimistic about what we could do to change the world, and many of us thought that by the year 2000 not only would women have equality of opportunity, but so would everyone who at the time were discriminated against. We also expected that we would have eliminated poverty, fixed environmental problems, have zero population growth, have great public transportation, figured out how to use our garbage to heat and cool our homes, have universal daycare, and learned how to solve international problems without killing people! Yes, maybe we were naive, but imagine where we would be if we hadn't worked so hard moving toward those solutions.
jweiss February 26, 2013 at 04:33 PM
Hi Marsia, I too was home with my children when you were and hated that question as well. But I can’t quite figure out why. My “constant companion” was never a “truckload of guilt” and I’m not sure what you mean when you say this about yourself. I loved [and still love] mothering my children and did not, when they were younger, think I was doing the most important job [as parenting is called—oftentimes by those who could never do it themselves] mostly because I never viewed it as a job. It’s not a job and it’s not work although if you’re home then household chores are involved and they can seem like work. Mothering, to me, seemed [seems] like a natural progression from pregnancy and giving birth: it’s what comes next. I hope that new mothers take seriously what they’ve done when they’ve brought another human being into the world. It may look like it’s all diapers and feedings and trying to get the baby to sleep but people, do you have any idea what you’re doing when you do all those things? You are building your child’s brain. You can either embrace that responsibility or you can delegate it [hopefully you have the choice and I want for all women that choice] but know what you are delegating. Sure doing work that benefits the world is important and women should be doing this but not at the cost of the human being you brought here. [continued on next post]
jweiss February 26, 2013 at 04:34 PM
We need a way to do both: the answer is not the “new normal, the dual-earner family”—that’s a capitalist trap. The answer lies in new ways of organizing time—for everyone. Two ideas that serious thinkers are examining: GBI, or Guaranteed Basic Income and a shorter work day. Both of these ideas attempt to give people more control over how they use their time. One assumption though is that if mothers could care for their children [had the money, had the time] they would. I think these ideas, to really make an impact on society, would need to go hand in hand with a renewed sense of the importance of caring for your children. http://www.atlc.org/Blueprint/TenPlus.php Also an aside: Marisa, when people told me what they did for a living –although I never asked--is when my eyes glazed over. Did any of their work sound remotely interesting??? I do PR for a bank...Really? Sure there are women who are doing valuable work but there are lots who are just doing work, minus the value [and I’m not talking about women who truly must work.]

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