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Posts Tagged ‘Stephanie Coontz’

The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old; do you know where your equality is?

Here’s a hint: if you’re a woman living in America, it’s still pretty far out of reach. Because for as far as women have come in the ol’ US of A, the fact is that the state of affairs here–compared to most of the rest of the world, is pretty freaking abysmal. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in an op-ed entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled” in Sunday’s NYT,

Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s work or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total workforce was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers should be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.

As I likely do not need to tell you, the number of hours worked expected from the average worker during the average workweek has ticked steadily up in recent years, making the idea of two full-time employees trying to raise a child while maintaining each of their careers near impossible.  So someone steps down. Men are generally paid more than women–so guess which one tends to do the stepping down? And in fact, the more hours a man works, the more likely it is his female partner will quit her job. (And interestingly, married dads whose wives don’t work full time get paid more. Grrr.)

I have an extremely talented, very driven friend who works in New York, in a highly competitive, fast-evolving field. She is passionate about her work, and fiercely devoted to keeping her skills current. Her husband makes more money than her, and his job offers benefits. They’re thinking of having a baby. Her current boss won’t pay for leave–and, she’s been feeling pretty stagnant in her position. Up until recently, she’d been looking for a new job. But now, she’s thinking, well, maybe I’ll just take some time off when we have the baby. Child care is so expensive anyway. It’ll put her at a disadvantage later, but she doesn’t see much of a choice. She’s stopped looking for something new–despite the fact that she has not, as of yet, stopped taking the pill.

Sheryl Sandberg would call this a classic case of “leaning out”–taking oneself out of the game before it’s necessary in anticipation of work-life issues–and suggest that this friend of mine rethink her strategy, “lean in” instead. Even this friend of mine looks at is as a personal choice. But the thing is, in cases like this, the personal is, in fact, political.

Going back to Coontz’s piece:

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their ‘decision-making process,’ it became clear that most had made the ‘choice’ to quit work only as a last resort–when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Every time we buy into that idea — that what’s going on with us has only to do with us — the movement stalls just a little bit more. It’s been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique… and twenty since the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order for things to change, we have to realize that what we are up against is bigger than the particular circumstances of our own lives.

Just as the miserable, Valium-popping suburban wives of Friedan’s day might have looked around at their gleaming linoleum and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and said, but I chose this, we too can look at everything as a personal choice. Or we can step back, take a broader look, and realize that while, yes, perhaps we did “lean out”–taking a lesser job in a lesser place because our husband made the big bucks, or taking some time off work with the baby because it “made more sense” even though, in an ideal world, we’d like to work, too–a huge, invisible (and not so invisible) part of why we “decided” to lean out is systemic. It’s cultural and it’s structural and it’s policy-determined and it is, in fact, political.

The graphic that ran with Coontz’s story is a color-coded world map that shows which countries have paid maternity leave, by weeks provided. Those in the “none” category included Palau, Papau New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, Suriname, and the United States. Aren’t we better than this?

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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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Sure, there’s been a lot of chat about everything that’s wrong with Mad Men and why women in general and feminists in particular should hate its unrepentant misogynystic guts.  And let’s face it:  this is a show that glorifies gin, Lucky Strikes and getting laid (by anyone but one’s spouse).

What’s not to hate, right?

Not so fast. As Stephanie Coontz wrote a year or so ago in the Washington Post: “Mad Men’s writers are not sexist. The time period was.”  And so as a woman and a feminist let me unapologetically admit that I can not wait for the season five premiere on Sunday.  Sure, it’s great TV, and the attention to period detail is freakishly fantastic.  (Pause here to drool over those dresses.)  And, as nighttime soaps go, there’s one hell of a story going on.  But the real reason I love Mad Men – as opposed to, say, its short-lived period clones (read: The Playboy Club and Pan Am) — is because it resonates:

Lesson 1:  The Way We Were. Want to know what second-wave feminism was all about?  Or why we needed a focused movement?  Look no further than the women of Sterling Cooper who, with the exception of Peggy (more later), type their days away in the steno pool or, if they’re lucky, move up to the outer office, answering someone else’s phone.  What’s great is that Mad Men doesn’t pretend that these “career girls” are empowered – as Pan Am and The Playboy Club tried to do.  Instead, we get it right away:  these gals are as hemmed in by the intractability of the system as they are by their rigid underwear.  Their only defense against what we now call sexual harassment was a giggle and a shrug. And for those who wonder what The Feminine Mystique was all about, may I introduce you to the chain-smoking Betty Draper?  She left her husband (as well she should have), ignores her kids, and ran off to Vegas to marry another guy who treats her like a house pet.

 Lesson 2. Where We Need to Go. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way in terms of career. Back when I graduated from college — not that long ago.  or maybe it was —  it was still legal for an employer to list an administrative job in the “female” classifieds and a managerial one in the “male.” Most women who graduated from college were told they had three career options:  secretary, teacher or nurse. And prospective employers were allowed to ask women what their husbands did for a living. Ugh. But for all the progress we’ve made, the workplace still hasn’t caught up. Take away the ashtrays and the booze and if you look closely,  you realize that the structure of today’s workplace isn’t all that different from Sterling Cooper’s, where every Don had a Betty at home to take care of business. It’s still designed by, and for, men. But the reality is that in today’s world, Betty puts in 52 hours a week, just like Don, and then comes home to do the laundry.   Even when men step up at home in ways their fathers never did, there’s still the math: take the current workplace expectations, add in the omnipresence of technology that keeps us uber-connected 24/7, and there aren’t enough hours in the day for any of us.  Unless, of course, one has a housewife.

Lesson 3: Ask, dammit.  In a word, Peggy.  She started as a secretary. Ended up a copywriter.  Which apparently was pretty unheard of in those days.  So how did she end up with a title, an office, and a snazzy new job?  She asked. Enough said. All too often, even decades after the days of Sterling Cooper, many of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, for fear we might be labeled as ambitious and thus, less likable.  Or that we might get turned down.  And so we cross our fingers and wait to get the nod from a higher up – and then are grateful if we do.  Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that keeps us from taking those risks — the possibility that the answer might be a big fat no or that even if it’s a yes, we might fall flat on our face. But as the wise woman told us when we were reporting our book:  You’ll always get over a failure. But regret?  It’s not recoverable.

Lesson 4. Beware the personal brand.  And then there’s Don.  Okay, he’s a guy and we write about women.  But, regardless of gender, he is the embodiment of what we call the iconic self, that image we create to project who we wish we were.  Don is an illusionist, a mystery man who invented himself out of whole cloth and, as David Weigand writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, is “on the run from himself.”  Weigand, who compares Draper to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Fun fact: Fitzgerald got his start as an advertising copywriter), writes:

Fitzgerald, the Midwesterner who went East to reinvent himself, saw both sides of the American “dream.” On the one hand, ours has always been a culture of hope and aspiration. On the other, our abiding belief in change and the ability to reinvent ourselves can bring us perilously close to the edge of self-delusion.

In short, Don is a cautionary tale, a desperate example (cue the falling man in the opening credits) of how we can lose ourselves when we work too hard to become our brand. When it comes to Don, we wonder: is there a there there?  Who knows. But it definitely makes you ponder what Don might do with Facebook.  Scary thought.

Lesson 5. Embrace our differences as our strengths.  It’s a revolutionary thought, the idea that men and women bring different strengths and talents to the table. After all, we came up thinking that to be successful, we had to fit in — to be “a man in a skirt,” as one of our sources dubbed it.  But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best:  Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity.  Not to say one gender is better than the other.  Just different.  Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past.  The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”

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Did you happen to catch Sunday’s Mad Men Finale? Entitled “Tomorrowland,” as always, the show served up a heaping dose of Yesteryear reality, tarted up in a no-detail-left-behind package of pitch-perfect mid-century style porn.

Initially–and despite the big jaw-dropper–I turned off the TV and thought about the women. Faye, the successful, independent, and beautiful doctor who challenged Don, encouraged him to be himself–even with some knowledge of his secret past–and seemed to have something verging on the serious with him… until, that is, Don took off to California with his much-younger secretary Megan, whom he’d slept with once before while working a late night at the office during which she proclaimed she was “interested in advertising,” and whom, in this episode, he asked to babysit during the trip after Betty canned the kids’ longtime nanny in a fit of temper. After a brush with his past that included the reclaiming of an heirloom ring, Don witnessed Megan leading the children in some sort of French nursery rhyme (just call her Megan VonTrapp), calmly cleaning spilled milkshakes, in a bikini and decked out for a night at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. Ergo, he slept with her, promptly decided he was in love, and, in the long and grand tradition of ad men and their secretaries, proposed. Back at the office, Peggy scored a six-figure deal with some panty-hose slingers, but news of the interoffice engagement trumped hers, despite the fact that the agency was going under. Seeing her shock, Don attempts to–what? console her?–by saying of Megan, “she reminds me of you.” Just a little younger, more beautiful, maternal, and not quite so smart… And then Don picks up the phone to dump Faye, who takes it like a woman–an understandably pissed off woman. Oh, also: Joan got a promotion. In title only–no raise for you, Joanie. (In a New York Times piece in which the writer watched the finale with National Women’s Political Caucus co-founder and “How to Make It in a Man’s World” author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the scene “prompt[ed] Ms. Pogrebin to laugh out loud and point at the screen: ‘We got the titles and not the salary.'”)

So much to say! (Alas, Joan and Peggy beat me to a fair chunk of it, in their hilarious shit-talking session in Joan’s office, post-engagement bomb.) But, hey, the show’s already been deconstructed and reconstructed, backwards and forward. (Although, am I the only one who calls “Foul” at the irony of all the critics who praise the show for its accurate depiction of an incredibly sexist time–and then describe Peggy, who’s started to prove herself professionally, as “increasingly arrogant?” For. The. Love.) But anyway. What goes on in the show is often shocking, but also not, because while wardrobe and workplace mores may have changed, certain human tendencies have not. Take even Betty, arguably the most shockingly-behaved character on the show. In a Washington Post piece entitled “Why ‘Mad Men’ Is TV’s Most Feminist Show,” which ran a week or so ahead of the finale, Stephanie Coontz says:

Betty Draper won most viewers’ sympathy in the first season because of her husband’s infidelities and lies. But since then, many have come to hate her for displaying the traits of the dependent housewife that Betty Friedan critiqued so vividly in her 1963 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” She is a woman who thinks a redecorated living room, a brief affair or a new husband might fill the emptiness inside her, and her attempts to appear the perfect wife render her incapable of fully knowing her children of even her successive husbands.

Interesting, that. (And it’s little wonder that the Sallys of the world are the ones who led feminism’s second wave, looking to live lives on equal, independent footing. As Pogrebin said in that NYT piece, “You should feel sorry for [Betty]… She has such a stunted life.”) But those issues–of misguided attempts at filling the emptiness inside, or the lengths one might go to in the service of avoiding getting to know oneself or one’s family or dealing with one’s or one’s family’s shit–become even more interesting when you consider this, from a New York magazine post-finale-premiere Q&A with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Faye seemed like Don Draper’s mistress type…

MW: No, I think Faye seemed like the next Mrs. Don Draper. She’s a professional and he’s an equal. I mean, who knows? There’s no stories about men in this situation. Maybe The Odd Couple. I realized because guys like this weren’t single for that long. To me, the reason this episode is called “Tomorrowland” is because it’s really about the choice between, “Do you want to deal with who you are, and live with that?” or “Do you want to think about the person you could be in the future and you’re becoming?” And Megan said, “Go to Tomorrowland.” Everything’s pushing towards that fact. Why don’t you be the person you want to be, and not worry about dealing with the person you are?

Excellent question, Mr. Weiner. And, while thankfully, much of what goes down in Mad Men‘s yesterdayland is relegated to the past, that question gets to me. In the show, both Betty and Don would rather do anything than figure out who they are and be that person. Whether they prefer Fantasyland or Tomorrowland is incidental; it’s the need for escape that’s the same. Betty is a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in temper tantrums; Don is… a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in advertising, cocktails, and sex. Either one would sooner quit their Lucky Strike habit than give up the chase and take a moment to think.

As Salon.com’s Heather Havrilesky put it:

But Sunday night’s “Mad Men” finale reminds us of what Matthew Weiner’s riveting drama captures best of all: the particularly modern affliction of dissatisfaction, a sickness that robs us of our ability to savor the moment, to relish the mundane details of our lives and delight in all of the joys that our comforts and conveniences bring. Perversely, the more comfortable we are, the more we want. We’re constantly distracted by the notion that we could do better or have more, that we might become someone new overnight, that there’s a magic pot of gold around the next corner. Whether it’s advertising or celebrity or culture or some twisted mix of radio jingles, cartoons, soap operas, political speeches and suspense thrillers, our cultural marinade makes us fixate on easy answers, shortcuts, and magical thinking. We’re each about to win the lottery; salvation lies just around the next bend, we just have to wait and see what happens.

Of course, Mad Men is fiction. But what about the rest of us? How often do we push down our real self, procrastinate the work of getting to know her, and instead obsess over changing our external circumstances, hoping they’ll offer us some sort of satisfaction? Or ignore who we are today in favor of who we think we’ll be tomorrow, what we think will satisfy us then? Or find ourselves categorically incapable of being in the here and now, distracted instead by the bright, shiny promise of what could be? It’s so funny, isn’t it, how, sometimes, somehow, we actually believe it’s easier to make decisions based on who we want to be than who we actually are–or possible to distract ourselves out of our dissatisfaction. I’m not happy, but maybe if I leave my philandering husband for this politician, or up and move my family across town, then I’ll feel better? Or, perhaps I’ll have a seventh scotch and screw my secretary–that should do the trick! Or, everything is great… but couldn’t it–shouldn’t it–be better?

Ridiculous, right? And yet. It’s kinda funny how that part carries the disturbing ring of truth, how Fantasyland and Tomorrowland hold such a timeless, universal appeal. I’m in a shitty relationship, but I don’t want to deal with it… I’m gonna cut my hair! And dye it, too! My job is sucking my soul… Time to plan a vacay! Everything is fine, but I sure am bored… maybe I’ll go back to school! Or maybe I should take up with that barista who makes a skull-and-crossbones in my latte foam… Or this: I’m so stressed out over the pages of final edits to my very first book, I just can’t deal… maybe I’ll pour myself a glass of wine, cozy up to the couch, and settled in to watch some salacious TV instead.

Although actually, for 56 minutes, that last one worked like a charm.

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So, the other day I rambled on about all the distractions that come with uber-connection. And, if we were to be honest, we would all admit that one of them has to do with cybershopping. Sigh. One of the clutters in the inbox comes in the form of seductive ads for shoes, dresses, “outerwear” (why can’t we just say coats?), you name it. All tantalizing us with pretty pictures of skinny models in clothes we may never wear, special online discounts, and real or imaginary deadlines.

Really, we have work we should be doing, but then there’s the seduction: Buy now! You too can be a fashionista! Free shipping! On sale for the next five minutes only!

And so you bite. (Or don’t. But wish you had.) And then that yellow dress flies into your mailbox and your credit card lives to regret it. If only you could have tried it on first. Trust me, I will get a little more substantive in a minute here. But first:

Just this week I came across a tech piece in the SF Chronicle about a bunch of new websites that use “augmented reality” (don’t ask) to allow you try on your online purchases out there in cyberspace. Basically, you can try out that cute little frock online — and maybe even mosey onto facebook to see what your friends think — before you plunk down the plastic. Genius? Maybe. Stay tuned for serious.

You have to wonder how great it would be if real life were like that, especially when we’re dealing with the big choice Q’s: What should I do with my life? Where will I fit? What would it be like to walk in those other shoes? Can I try before I commit?

Look to the big picture, and you realize that in unexpected ways, we all can — and do — try our callings on for size. Here’s just one hint. A 2002 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics drew a longitudinal picture of younger baby boomers (born between 1957 and 1964) showing that they held an average of about 10 different jobs between 18 and 36. Most studies show that younger workers are even more mobile.

For example, a Business Week article dating from this past summer, found that, for workers under 30:

Corporate commitment has dwindled, tenure has grown far shorter, and people switch jobs with much greater frequency. The average American changes jobs once every three years; those under the age of 30 change jobs once a year.

Trying jobs on for size? Not such a bad idea, when you think of it.

Here’s a hint, too, that maybe we’re trying on new roles at home as well. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the homefront reversals resulting from the economic downturn — some have begun calling it a “he-cession” — with women poised to become the majority of the workforce. What that has meant is that in many families, mom flies out the door with the briefcase while dad stays home with the kids. While the workplace parity has not resulted in economic parity — as we’ve reported here, here and here — there may be an unintended consequence:

Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who has written extensively about the history of marriage, says that the shift in spousal roles in some families could have a lasting impact. “The silver lining here may be that men now get a little more experience under their belt in terms of actually being the experts at home,” she said. “When the economy recovers, we may find a little boost towards men and women sharing these roles.”

Finally, there’s this. (Journalists tend to write in terms of threes. Old habits die hard) Examiner.com posted a column thursday in which Gen Y women gave thanks for all the ceilings that their strong female role models shattered for them, enabling them to try on the opportunities their mothers never had. As one 24-year-old woman wrote:

This year I am most thankful for the opportunity to have a career as a woman. Going back many generations, my family is full of strong and ambitious women, from my ancestor who came over during the potato famine to my grandmother who had a successful modeling career and raised a family. My mother was the first in her family to get a college degree. I feel thankful there is no longer any question that I could go to college and have a career. My parents pushed me to get an education and supported me as I moved away from home, which many women in my mom’s generation would not have really considered. Now the canvas of the world feels much more available for women.

Sure, you could spin a lot of this in terms of the half-empty glass. But I choose half-full. Yeah, choices — no matter what, no matter when — are tough. Angsty. And there’s still work to be done. Lots of it, in fact. But when you realize you’re not locked in, that life continues to evolve, maybe each individual choice — even a lousy one — doesn’t carry quite so much weight.

Meanwhile, back to that yellow dress. I confess. Mine. I was the victim of a 12 hour sale on Bluefly when I should have been doing something productive. But actually, after letting it sit in the mailing bag for several weeks, I realized it’s kinda cute after all. With those cool brown spiderweb tights that Shannon gave me last Christmas and my killer brown boots (yeah, I found those online, too), it might be just the ticket for Thanksgiving.

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