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.