Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Book

This week I am re-reading the old "Feminist Bible", The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan in honor of her recent passing (see link). This book is what many people consider to be "the book" which ignited modern feminism in the early 1960's. Following this publication, Friedan helped to found the National Organization for Women and the conversation opened about men, women, and the need for social change in America.

What was truly groundbreaking about The Feminine Mystique was its unfettered look at domesticity, motherhood, and marriage--which was, at that time, a truly sacrosanct institution (and is increasingly once again in these politically conservative recent years). Friedan opened the book with The Problem That Has No Name: "The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night--she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question--Is this all?"

At the time of the writing, women were without any other clear life path besides motherhood and marriage, married women were barred from attending most colleges and universities, and the inferiority of women was accepted as common fact. As Friedan published this book, the Civil Rights Movement was in full-force (Martin Luther King's infamous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was also released in 1963). The sexual revolution hadn't yet transformed cultural standards, and Americans had only just committed to the Vietnam War. American society was a boiling pot of societal change and revolution...and here, Friedan and many other "First generation" feminists dared to speak out for women for the first time since the suffragists a century earlier.

Betty Friedan and other Feminists of the era shifted our society so dramatically that we no longer even realize the benefits that we, as "second" or "third" wave daughters, are completely free to luxuriate in. I majored in Women's Studies as one of my Bachelor's Degrees as an undergraduate--and my current Master's work is focusing on Feminism and culture. I do not hate men...but, love them deeply and sincerely as allies for societal change. I also do not hesitate to call myself a Feminist as boldly as I can, because the images of Feminists purveyed by our culture have convinced women that this is a "dirty word". How many students I have known over the years of teaching, or friends I have talked with, women on the sidewalk who say the now second-nature, "I'm not a Feminist, BUT..." They then launch off into an argument which is fully Feminist in its nature--but, that word has become such a rejected one it honestly concerns me.

Now, there are so many things in this world for a person to concern herself with...I recognize this (disasters, wars, famines, etc). I do not mean to downplay the very real significance of these major crises. But, I am afraid that my daughters, nieces, cousins, friends will have all so internalized the concept of "I'm not a Feminist..." that they will forget to add the "BUT" and keep going with their thoughts. Women have the right to pursue anything in life they may dream of (except for maybe the White House--but, I hope to live to see that one). These rights were earned by our mothers and maintained by countless others...I don't want them to be forgotten.

Feminism is a cause for all to embrace--men and women alike. M. and I have had countless discussions about men as Feminists. I tell him often that I would like to be able to say I am a "Humanist" in support of the issues facing all people everywhere. Increasingly, I am...but, until the world is fully equal for all genders and orientations, I still am a Feminist working my way towards social change. Currently, new mothers are leaving the full-time workforce in record numbers. But, these statistics, I believe, are misleading because mothers are simply carving out new terrain in their careers. Part-time work isn't counted accurately as work--free-lancing and artistic pursuits are often overlooked--and many people fail to realize the "sequencing" being chosen by so many women who accomplish both full-time motherhood in their child's early years and full-time careers when they decide to pursue them. Maybe, as some claim, women will not be able to rejoin the workforce with this "Mommy Gap" in their resume. But, having known so many women who have, I cannot help but to think this is just another tool used to divide "Mommies" and "Working Women".

I hope that, like Friedan, women remember to speak up about their status and don't blindly accept what society is feeding them. Women have choices and should make them carefully. Many men are in need of their own "internal revolutions" to claim the full range of human emotions and perceptions they often have bled out of them by our culture. I am a woman who is educated, who has career goals firmly fixed in place...I can be found most often with a baby on my hip, a small son's hand in mine, a luminescent daughter leading the way, and a husband by my side...but, rest assured--I am wearing my "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" T-shirt...because it IS. My copy of The Feminine Mystique (bought for me by my father-in-law as a gift) is a first edition with a signed inscription by Ms. Friedan herself. It reads: For a woman of all stages--who keeps evolving and enjoying--Betty Friedan. I know it wasn't written to me...but, I like to pretend anyway that I am, and always will be, a woman who keeps evolving and enjoying at all stages.

Thank you, Betty Friedan, for your vision and your voice. Men and Women everywhere benefited from your broad vision of life...thank you for retraining the eye to push past the horizon to the potential lying just beyond that fine shadowed line.


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