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Posts Tagged ‘Betty Friedan’

Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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Despite what we would like to think, life is not a multiple choice, scan-tron type of affair.  And sometimes, everywhere you look, something reminds you that choices and decisions are much more complicated than either/or.  Two cases in point, in case you’ve missed them:

First up, a Mother’s Day op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times by Stephanie Coonz.  If you recognize the name, it’s because she’s the author of 2005′s groundbreaking “Marriage: A History” and the newly released “A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”  What she had to say was this:  that archetype of the happy — and saintly — stay-at-home mom?  It never was.  In fact, she points out, until quite recently, mom was pretty much villified, her social status in the dumpster until Betty Friedan came around.  So that whole debate about the mommy wars?  Put it to rest.

Coonz’ research has found that, really, whether you stay at home or work outside it, your happiness –  and your family’s too — is all about the choice.  There’s more, but here’s the take-away:

These findings suggest that it is time to stop arguing over who has things worse or who does things better, stay-at-home mothers or employed mothers. Instead, we should pay attention to women’s preferences and options.

Feminism has also fostered increased respect for men’s ability and desire to be involved parents. So we should also pay attention to expanding men’s ability to choose greater involvement in family life, just as we have expanded women’s ability to choose greater involvement in meaningful work.

While stay-at-home mothers may not have the aura of saintliness with which they were endowed in the 19th century, it’s indisputable that their status and lives have improved since their supposed heyday in the 1950s. On this Mother’s Day, it’s too bad that nostalgia for a golden age of motherhood that never existed still clouds our thinking about what’s best for mothers, fathers and their children.

And then there’s this.  The current shitstorm over the “SlutWalks” that are taking place across the nation — and beyond.  Sparked by a Toronto police officer who told a bunch of college women that they could avoid being raped if they didn’t dress like sluts, women have been marching in their underwear to protest his message.  I get the anger against blaming the victim — just not the underwear.  But I do like what salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory had to say about this whole either-or issue.  A slut or a prude?  She votes neither, and wonders why it has to be one or the other:

I’m tired of the polarizing rhetoric: Are you a prude or a slut? You know what, I’m neither. I understand the concept of re-appropriating slurs, and that many people find it freeing and empowering. Also, political discourse doesn’t exactly lend itself to nuance and subtlety, so shocking slogans can be tremendously effective. On a personal level, though, this kind of reactive language can feel awfully limiting. I’m not a political caricature, and neither is my sexuality.

… So while it’s kick-ass that so many women are proudly calling themselves sluts, I’d also like to defend the prudes, and those of us who would rather toss out those reductive categories altogether. The conversation really starts to get interesting when you say: I’m not a prude, but I’m not a slut; I’m ____

Choices, all of them, and never quite as clear as they seem.

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Dear (anti-Equal Rights Amendment crusader and Eagle Forum founder) Phyllis Schlafly and (“No Bull Mom”) Suzanne Venker, co-authors of “The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know–and Men Can’t Say”,

When you write “If there’s one thing feminists love, it’s divorce,” it makes me wonder.

When you say that “Their own writings reveal that feminists sought liberation from home, husband, family, childbirth, children, and the role of full-time homemaker” do you think, perhaps, that what “they” were seeking liberation from was not these things per se, but the expectation that those things would comprise the complete script of their lives? And the freedom to pursue experiences and roles beyond those outlines?

You write that “They wanted to be independent of men and liberated from the duties of marriage and motherhood. So their first legislative goal was the adoption of easy-to-get divorce.” Um, no. “No fault” divorce in the US originated in California in 1970. The ERA was introduced to Congress for the first time in… 1923. Also, you’re conflating the practical with the philosophical. I’d argue that the most urgent, practical goal regarding unilateral divorce was empowering battered or otherwise abused women to leave without permission from their abusers; while, philosophically, the goal was to redefine marriage to make it more equal, more fulfilling.

In fact, I wonder: did you perhaps not know that Betty Friedan, pied piper of those dirty, man-hating feminists, once said that her tombstone should read: “She helped make women feel better about being women and therefore better able to freely and fully love men”?

And for all the pontificating you do about the egregiousness of the weakening of the marital bonds is, I wonder what you’d say to a feminist woman who desperately wants to get married, but can’t. Because her partner, who also desperately wants to get married, is also a woman. (Maybe a feminist, too!)

And when you answer the question “Where were conservatives when the divorce rate got out of hand?” with the flip “They were quietly raising their own families,” I suppose you’re forgetting about Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, Rush Limbaugh, um, Ronald Reagan?

When you say “Marriage and motherhood are not something to which young women have been taught to aspire. Instead the women in their lives tell them to focus solely on their career” I have to disagree. Witness: Disney movies; Tabloid “bump” patrols; “The Bachelor”.

When you go on to say “It’s silly to think there’s something wrong with being in the kitchen–everybody has to eat!” I have to wonder if it eludes you that, these days, pretty much everybody has to work.

Venker, you say, “In my twenties, I had what we now call a ‘starter marriage’: one that lasts less than five years and does not produce children. My ex-husband and I both had considerable doubts, and I distinctly recall our conversation, before we got married, about the fact that we could always get divorced. How pitiful is that?”

Extremely. You allowed yourself the freedom to make a mistake–and, I’m guessing you’d testify–learn from it, yet you don’t think others should be afforded the same freedom. Pitiful indeed.

You say that “feminism also taught women that men are idiots.” I think it taught women that there’s no reason to put up with a man who is an idiot.

You say that American women have never had it better. That “American women can structure their lives to accomplish anything they want.”

Is that not thanks to the work of feminism? (And, um, Schlafly, your career as a lawyer and a writer? Is that not thanks to the work of feminism??)

You say that “It is self evident that American women are the most fortunate women who ever lived and enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than are available in any other country. Armed with the right attitude, they have every opportunity for happiness and achievement. Women should stop feeling they are victims of the patriarchy, reject feminist myths, and follow the roadmap to success and happiness spelled out in Flipside.”

First: no. American women are not the most fortunate. See: the Nordic world.

And: In other words, we should ignore the fact that we are underpaid and underrepresented? That the structures of society do not reflect the reality of modern women’s lives? That, rather than strive to change the world to fit women, we should change ourselves to fit into the world that wasn’t built for us? That when we find ourselves up against a glass ceiling, a bad marriage, a lecherous boss or a weak paycheck, we should strive not to change our circumstances, but our attitudes?

Feminists do not love divorce. Or your outdated stereotypes. Or your condescending judgments. And feminists do not love you.

But you know, the careers you enjoy, the choices you have, the freedoms you have? You’re welcome.

Thanks for listening,

Shannon


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What do you think Betty Freidan–or Betty Draper for that matter–might say to the idea that, come 2010, women everywhere would be finding their purpose right in their own backyards? Tending to the chicken coops in their own backyards, that is?

Don’t think that would fly?

Peggy Orenstein offers an interesting take on the Extreme-Homemaking-as-Feminism trend in a piece entitled “The Femivore’s Dilemma” in this week’s New York Times magazine, and while I can get behind the sentiment (I’m a card-carrying Pollanite; I’ve seen Food, Inc.; I buy my organic, grass-fed beef from a friend of mine every Saturday at the farmers market and can rant for hours about the environmental degradation wrought by the food industrial complex, and don’t even get me started on the antibiotics…), there’s just something about the phenomenon that ruffles my feathers.

Here’s a bit from Orenstein’s piece:

All of these gals–these chicks with chicks–are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper. ‘Prior to this, I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,’ says Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed livestock farmer in upstate New York and author of ‘Radical Homemakers,’ a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning femininsts’.

I mean, on the one hand, it’s earth-mamma cool. Back to nature. Slow. Sustainable. Simple. Hormone-Free. It’s badass in it’s way, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to accept a brunch invitation from any mother hen who’s literally escorted the eggs from the backyard to the table, never mind who brought home the bacon. Plus–full disclosure–I have several friends who raise their own birds. I dig it. (And, you know, brunch? I’m free.)

But is it really feminism?

Hayes pointed out that the original ‘problem that had no name’ was as much spiritual as economic: a malaise that overtook middle-class housewives trapped in a life of schlepping and shopping. A generation and many lawsuits later, some women found meaning and power through paid employment. Others merely found a new source of alienation. What to do? The wages of housewifery had not changed–an increased risk of depression, a niggling purposelessness, economic dependence on your husband–only now, bearing them was considered a ‘choice’: if you felt stuck, it was your own fault…

Enter the chicken coop.

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place.

It’s such a romantic idea. Living off the land! Chopping the wood for the fires that will heat your home and bathwater! Hunting, foraging, toiling and tilling… you know, working. But how empowering is it really? For an answer, read what former New York City-living, former women’s mag editor Jessie Knadler has to say about her new life–which involves involves all of that… and axe-wielding, produce-canning, jerky-drying, and water-hauling–in the post she published in response to Orenstein’s piece, on her blog “Rurally Screwed.” (Um, awesome, that.)

The irony is that while there’s no question I’m more resourceful and frugal and self-sufficient in my new life, I actually feel like less of a feminist than ever… Instead of feeling proud of myself for all my physical accomplishments, I sometimes find myself wishing that Jake would do more manual labor for me. You know, because he’s a dude and I’m not. I sometimes find myself wanting to hole up in the house and assuage my guilt for not helping him dig a trench to China by baking him cookies, or making him a nice casserole, or some such. Suddenly, dusting the end tables doesn’t seem so bad. Betty Friedan would probably roll over in her grave.

Yowch. I’d say anything that makes dusting the end tables look good qualifies as a pretty serious Con. But what really bothers me about the whole thing is this: is the Extreme Homemaker yet another ideal to which we must aspire, like the cupcake- and Kleenex-brandishing Office Mom? Another iconic self? A perfectionist response to the dilemma of having too many choices and feeling a little insecure about the one we’ve chosen? It kind of reminds me of this quote, from Sandra Tsing Loh in the Cautionary Matrons piece I wrote about awhile back:

In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers… We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices… We were the proteges of old-guard feminists… We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet.

As Orenstein notes, even Hayes acknowledges that such an existence, taken to extremes, can be isolating and crazy-making:

Hayes found that without a larger purpose–activism, teaching, creating a business or otherwise moving outside the home–women’s enthusiasm for the domestic arts eventually flagged… ‘There can be loss of self-esteem, loss of soul, and an inability to return to the world to get your bearings. You can start to wonder, What’s this all for?’ It was an unnervingly familiar litany: if a woman is not careful, it seems, chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage.

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I say we leave it up to the kids. More below.

Writing in The Nation last week, Katha Pollitt threw some love at Julie and Julia, the feel-good foodie movie about Julia Child and Julie Powell, the 20-something blogger who tried to channel Child by cooking her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” What Pollitt liked most about the movie was the fact that it was about adult women finding meaning through work:

What I loved most of all, though, was that Julie & Julia is that very rare thing, a movie centered on adult women, and that even rarer thing, a movie about women’s struggle to express their gifts through work. Not a boyfriend, a fabulous wedding, a baby, a gay best friend, a better marriage, escape from a serial killer, the perfect work-family balance, another baby. Real life is full of women for whom work is at the center, who crave creative challenge, who are miserable until they find a way to make a mark on the world. But in the movies, women with big ambitions tend to be Prada-wearing devils or uptight thirtysomethings who relax when they find a slacker boyfriend or inherit an adorable orphan. Among recent films, Seraphine, Martin Provost’s biopic about an early-twentieth-century French cleaning woman and self-taught painter, is practically unique in its curiosity about a woman’s creative drive. More usually, a woman’s cinematic function is to forward, thwart, complicate or decorate the story of a man. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s elusive girlfriend in (500) Days of Summer, Zooey Deschanel has all the external trappings of individuality–aloofness, a sly smile, vintage clothes and indie tastes–but she has no more inner life than Petrarch’s Laura. She’s there to break the hero’s heart and rekindle his ambitions. What will she become? Someone else’s wife.

I read this piece after a long Sunday afternoon of a breakneck email back-and-forth relating to Marcus Buckingham and the happiness gap, which Shannon wrote about so eloquently yesterday. Much of the backchat centered around sexism: Why on earth would we look to a male to define, understand and proffer solutions for our own particular brand of angst? The answer was the obvious. We’re still living in a man’s world. Or, if you prefer the loaded term, a patriarchy, where most of the social structures were set up by men — to benefit men. Men dominate for the simple reason that they can.

Which made me wonder: some 50 years after Betty Friedan ignited the second wave of the women’s movement by writing about the “problem that has no name”, why are we still pleasantly pleased to find a movie about grown-up women who have lives apart from their significant others? Why do we let men (and the editors who publish them) take our conversations away from us? Why were we shocked and amazed that Hillary made it so far into last year’s primary season — all the while secretly acknowledging to ourselves that she could never win the presidency? Why do we still earn 71 cents on the dollar — and then come home and do the laundry? Why, in fact, do I still use terms like “Why women” (just hit search) in my posts?

No wonder we are undecided.

I came of age during the bra-burning era — which, by the way, never happened — at a time when I was known as a “women’s libber.” That dates me, yeah? At my first job out of college, my co-workers (mostly women several years older than I) were almost all involved in consciousness-raising groups, and brought those conversations into the lunch room and break rooms. There was momentum: we were prepped for change, and by god, we were going to make it happen.

But see above. We didn’t. And having been along for most of the ride, I’m frustrated that the movement seems to have stalled.

Why are words like “patriarchy” still part of the lexicon? Why, after Pat Shroeder broke ground in 1973 by becoming the first woman from Colorado to be elected to the U.S. house of representatives – and the first woman to make a legitimate run for president — why are women so woefully underrepresented in the House and, primarily, the Senate? Why are we tempted to use the same loaded  rhetoric of 50 years back without realizing that, just maybe, we need to change strats?

Back in the day, feminism was fueled, to a certain extent, by anger. And it was appropriate: Wake up, women! Embrace your oppression! Fight the patriarchy! That, we got. But moving from anger to constructive action? Seems to me the movement might have gotten so stuck in the rhetoric that it not only closed the tent, but couldn’t pull the trigger.

(As an aside, these are questions for the next generation: What was the last thing you read about NOW? What do you know about EMILY’s list — and do you even know what EMILY stands for?)

One of my friends who was part of Sunday’s bang-a-thon is from Sweden, where this type of conversation is probably close to obsolete. In her country, where there is both gender parity and equality, she suggests, it may be due to their social-democratic-ness: “It’s normal to look at society as a structure and ask yourself who will benefit — and how it can be changed to benefit other groups.”

Why didn’t we think of that? Is it possible that the anger that was so successful as a wake-up call ended up immobilizing us as much as complacency might have? Rather than building a coalition, as President Obama, who achieved the impossible last November, was able to do, did we end up alienating those we needed as allies?

I have no answers. Which is why I’m hoping the twenty and thirty-somethings might pick up the mantle and go forward with some fresh ideas.  Third-wave feminism has been dubbed by some “do-me feminism” or “Sex and the City feminism.” I have to wonder: do we need a fourth wave?

I vote yes.

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