Few of today’s young women, or older women for that matter, would align themselves with the first two, and the third is a myth. But all of these terms churn up collective images from one of the greatest social movements in history.
Gail Collins’ riveting, epic new book, “When Everything Changed,” tells the story. Its subtitle, “The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present,” should have said an incredible journey. The transformation that occurred in a mere 50 years has irrevocably changed the day-to-day existence of women and men across the planet from a way of life that had been in place since history has been recorded.
For today’s young women, the right to pursue a career, have their own money, buy a house or control their own bodies is a given. These liberties are so basic and ingrained in the 21st century world that women’s liberation seems as dated a term as suffrage. And for many, feminism is a word reserved for angry, man-hating radicals. Few would put themselves in either category.
Yes, we’ve come a long way baby—- but maybe not as far as you think.
That other great social movement of the 20th century, Civil Rights, now has museums erected to commemorate its importance in many of the southern cities that once practiced institutionalized racism at its worst. Yet women’s liberation is rarely mentioned and probably not understood by anyone under 40.
As we all know, despite the election that took place just over a year ago, racism is not dead. But its practice is abhorrent to any thinking person in 2010. And, the movement that paved the way for Barack Obama to lead our nation is, as it should be, celebrated throughout our society.
Why then do we not commemorate Betty Friedan, who was as important to the women’s movement as Dr. King was to Civil Rights? Why are extraordinary social-change agents such as Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm (the first and only black female candidate for president) all but forgotten?
Could it be that many of the women who changed things were aggressive and sometimes even hostile, traits that are still unacceptable in women? History shows us that sweeping social change and timidity don’t mix. It takes in-your-face confrontation, and our society still uses the “b” word for women who employ such tactics. Yet the courage of these women utterly altered almost every aspect of the way we live today.
It was not so long ago that little girls played mommy, nurse or teacher because those were the only things they could observe a woman doing. A woman doctor, lawyer or politician was an aberration, as strange and foreign to the pre-feminist era as a black head of state.
Until the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, previous attempts for sexual equality, from feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century to the trousers-wearing George Sand in the 19th, were mostly confined to a small intellectual elite. The suffragists of the early 20th century did get women the vote, but they didn’t really demand much more than that.
Gail Collins’ book chronicles the first stirrings of the female unrest in the mid-20th century that finally changed things for good. During World War II, with all the males off at battle, women across America were not only in demand for “men’s jobs,” it was seen as their patriotic duty. The image of Rosie the Riveter remains today as an iconic symbol for our factory-working, truck-driving grandmothers who threw off the apron and picked up a welding torch.
After the war, the “girls” were expected to happily resume their domestic duties. They complied by welcoming their returning husbands, and by firmly planting their bare feet in the kitchen in the constant state of pregnancy that created the baby boom generation.
Upper-class women who were lucky enough to go to college sought an MRS. degree. Betty Friedan was one of those. Despite graduating summa cum laude from Smith and early political activism as a journalist, she let a boyfriend dissuade her from pursuing a doctorate in psychology at Berkeley. Her MRS. title and children soon followed, and her career as a journalist was ended when she was fired for being pregnant with her second child.
But what began as a freelance piece surveying her fellow Smith graduates at their 15th reunion became a groundbreaking tome that resonated with women around the globe. In “The Feminine Mystique,” Friedan described “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction” that many educated, and uneducated, women felt with the confined roles in the restricted society in which they lived. Obviously these feelings weren’t new. Yet for the first time ever, for many reasons that Collins deftly examines, a force began to build that at last burst through the dam.
Ironically, Friedan was viewed as old-fashioned by a more extremist feminist faction of the early 1970s. As with any great social change, the women’s movement sometimes went too far. A small minority rejected the need for men at all, letting their armpit hair grow and eschewing any physical affectations they viewed as necessary only to attract a man.
It was this side of the movement that created the backlash we still suffer from, and sadly, is often led by members of our own team. The mother of anti-feminism, Phyllis Schlafly, was herself a mother of six whose career as a political activist and lawyer could never have been possible without the very movement she waged war against. Despite the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified by 35 of the needed 38 states, Schlafly’s misleading diatribes about communal bathrooms and the female draft struck fear in the hearts of Middle America. The ERA failed to receive the last three needed states by the 1979 deadline and remains dormant to this very day.
Schlafly lives on literally (still fighting any attempts to reignite the ERA) and figuratively in a new younger, sexier incarnation named Sarah Palin. Palin’s populist fear-mongering has created the very same suspicions about women’s rights, while fostering an intolerant solipsism about what constitutes a “family-centric” America. And the hypocrisy is just as thick. Presumably the “first dude” is watching the kids while Palin pontificates from podium to podium, and now on Fox News.
Collins’ book encompasses the political forces that changed women’s roles in America, and ironically, made Palin possible. But politics and even the formidable Betty Friedan, as evidenced by her feminist predecessors, could never have succeeded alone.
About the time Friedan’s book was creating a sensation, the advent of the birth control pill in the early ’60s freed women from the ever-present fear of unwanted pregnancy. And, domestic innovations such as the washing machine and electric oven unchained females from back-breaking labor that once consumed their every waking hour.
Without dropping a baby every year, and with household tasks that now took hours instead of days, women began to explore their options. Collins rightly points out that men were just as bound to their single-focused responsibility to bring home the bacon. New options were now open for everyone.
But with choice comes confusion. Women of the ’80s, who broke down the corporate doors (if not the glass ceiling), ran smack into that awful thing called “balance.” Who was going to mind the kids and clean the house? Everything had changed — except our government and private policies about daycare, child-rearing and housekeeping.
In most cases, women of the ’80s found themselves competing with men during the day in the workplace, dressed in little man-like bow ties as specified in the female version of “Dress for Success.” And at night, they would return home to make the dinner, do the laundry, fix the kids’ school-lunches, give them baths and put them to bed, usually unaided by their mates who were now enjoying a double-income lifestyle.
Then there was the sad and silent conflict between women who went out in the workplace and those who (probably smartly considering the double-duty workload) chose to stay at home. It seethed and roiled inwardly within the two camps whenever they confronted each other at PTA meetings or picking up kids at play-dates.
Perhaps peace came with the realization that for women of that time there were no easy solutions. Those who stayed at home secretly wondered whether they were still relevant in the new social order, and those who journeyed out agonized over the baby’s first steps seen only by the nanny.
Today our daughters still teeter on stiletto heels, but they can now freely have sex in the city (without being considered a slut) after a dog-eat-dog day as a top executive at Goldman Sachs. But much more significantly, they can also be president — almost.
Then why have our young “girls gone wild” by exposing their breasts to drunken frat boys on national television — and by making the singularly male-gratifying act of fellatio, instead of Pepsi, the choice of a new generation? Maybe the lifestyle freedoms they now enjoy are so taken for granted that sex is the only freedom left to explore.
So perhaps it’s time to tell them the story of how they got here. If so, Gail Collins’ “When Everything Changed” should be required reading for our daughters, and our sons.