From My Days on the Forefront of Women's Lib – Kveller
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From My Days on the Forefront of Women’s Lib

Alina Adam’s post on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique inspired me to leaf through my copy. I’ve never actually read it but it is a treasured memento. In 1963, when I was still a little girl, my feisty, well-before-her-time grandmother bought up a whole bunch of paperback copies (still marked on the cover at $.75 each) and gave them out to friends and family.

That image alone, of a 4’9” daughter of the shtetl with a stack of “feminist manifestos,” is a response to Alina in and of itself.

I admire Alina for even getting through the book. The prose is like that in a breathless romance novel; you can practically see Betty’s bosom heaving. The research is poor, and the conclusions, to put it kindly, are debatable. But, to be fair, it was written in a very different time, one which, given the trajectory of history, made the choices young moms have now, with all the challenges they bring, possible.

And, in addition to the horrifying examples Alina cites, there are some really good quotes: “What woman needs,” (Friedan quotes Margeret Fuller as saying), “is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded to unfold such powers as are given her.” “For until very recently only men…had the freedom and education necessary to realize their full abilities, to pioneer and create and discover, and map new trails for future generations.”

In the “old days” (before the baby boomers), women were expected to behave in a very circumscribed way. They got married young and had children. They cooked, cleaned, and took care of the kids unless their husbands could afford to get them “help.” Most wives got allowances from their husbands to pay for household expenses. They generally did not have their own money, and probably few knew how to write a check. They were defined in terms of who their husbands were and what their husbands did. “Working” was acceptable only if a woman had no children. Or if one’s husband did not earn enough to maintain the family. Only then did a woman, with some shame, go to “work.” And because few women were well educated and there were far fewer job opportunities for women, the jobs were generally of low status and low pay. Women were basically accessories for men. They had little autonomy or freedom from sharply defined roles.

(Watch Mad Men. I figured out that my father was exactly the same age as the fictional Don Draper. But, since I come from a long line of strong women, there were no Betty Drapers in my family. And my father was unusual for that time–although he worked day and night, he made me and my sister feel valued and supported us in anything we wanted to do, as he did my brother.)

Anyway, the modern Women’s Movement began in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I had a ring-side seat at Barnard College, a leading college for women at that time and the center of the burgeoning feminist movement’s philosophical debate. What a heady time! We were still dealing with the Vietnam protests at Columbia, but that was led by boys. Here we had our own rallying point! The leaders of Women’s Lib (I dislike that phrase, but that is what it was called) were on our campus! We “extraordinary women” were the intellectual elite, armed with a great education, skills,  assertiveness, and big mouths, committed to our ideals, convinced we would go out and change the world.

And to a certain extent, we did. Even if we chose to stay home and raise our children as I decided to do. Because, after the “revolution,” society began to change and we had CHOICES (reproductive and otherwise)–something denied our mothers and grandmothers. And we knew we were as good as the boys. Better, actually. We didn’t know too many guys as smart and as capable as we were (I still feel like that, to tell you the truth). So even if, in our twenties and thirties, we made our focus our home, we later went into the work force armed with degrees and confidence in our abilities. We got good jobs, we had careers, we were valued for something other than being someone’s wife, mother, or arm candy. We put our smarts and our skills to work in ways different than had the women who came before us.

We had it all!!! Husband, family, career!

But really–we didn’t. We couldn’t.

At least not at the same time.

In my opinion, the women’s movement made two big mistakes. The first was convincing us that we “could have it all,” setting us up for disappointment and failure when it became clear that “having it all” brought its own burdens, challenges, and pressures which were just as awful (albeit different) as “not having it at all.”

I’ve learned that the best we can expect and work towards is, over the course of a lifetime, having “some.” If we believe as individuals that we have had “most of it,” we should consider ourselves very, very lucky.

The second mistake feminist leaders made was to insist that women be more like men. They believed that if women acted like men and had the advantages men seemed to have had, then women would be much better off. Clawing one’s way up the career ladder with few family demands seemed preferable, in those days, to being occupied with home and family. And it seemed then to be an either/or proposition.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it would have been much better if the Women’s Movement encouraged men to be more like women! I risk stereotyping here, but it is my firm belief that women are better multi-taskers, better at getting things done without needing a medal, better at forming and maintaining relationships, and are more giving and open.

If men were more like women, the world would be in a better place.

But back to Alina and Betty. Yes, I agree with Alina that “having it all is too hard.” But let’s at least give Betty some credit for starting a conversation that reverberates 50 years later. A conversation that ultimately gives young women choices that their grandmothers, like mine, could only dream about.

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