I recently had the opportunity to read the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Notice I didn’t say “reread.” This classic of feminism was not part of the canon when I was in college, at least not at the socially conscious, small, private liberal arts college that I attended.
But it is part of the canon at the socially conscious, small, private liberal arts college that my niece is currently attending. She read it. She passed it onto her mom, who then passed it on to me. And for the first time, I read this clarion call to arms (well, at least the first chapter).
The first thing I thought as I began reading was “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Betty Friedan writes of stay-at-home moms (then known only as “moms”) who are lonely, bored, depressed and confused. They are told by society that they should be happy. They have been raised to get married and have children and enjoy the “freedom” which comes with modern living (i.e. a vacuum and washing machine). While the modern conveniences have changed, the life of an at-home mom of small children can still be lonely, boring, depressing and confusing. I know, I’ve been there.
“Putting Hubby Through” — The Ph.T. Degree
Friedan writes that the women of the 1950s were not encouraged to seek higher education, but to find a husband. As cliché as this all sounds, the statistics are shocking.
According to Friedan, “By the end of the 1950s, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to twenty, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 percent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar.”
Whew! At least that’s changed. In 2005, 57% of US college students were women and women on campus today continue to be more likely to seek graduate degrees than men. But still when it comes to caring for children, many highly educated, professional women choose to stay home with the kids, the laundry and the vacuum. But we also get to stay home with our skis, our bikes, our running shoes, our gym memberships and our computers.
And that, I think, makes one heck of a difference.
Endorphins and Opinions
Whereas Friedan describes her contemporaries as striving to wax their floors to perfection, we are waxing our skis for greater speed. Whereas Friedan’s peers were changing sheets twice a week, for lack of anything better to do, we are changing our running shoes twice yearly, running our own businesses and making our kids change their own sheets.
Whereas Friedan describes women who never leave their homes except to ferry their kids around, the moms I know, of every profession, vocation and persuasion, are out at the gym, out on the trails and out on the slopes several times a week with the overarching goal of maintaining their sanity. Fitness is a side benefit. The real benefit is from the joy and the endorphins one gets from physical exertion and challenge.
And then there is the computer. If you have ever wondered why there is an entire genre of writing called “mommy blogging,” here is my answer. I think it is because the demands on moms today are really pretty much the same demands that were on the women of the 1950s. Housework will always be unfulfilling because it is never done. Ditto laundry. Cooking for picky eaters is a pain. Raising children, while a true labor of love, is still labor.
But whereas the women of the past didn’t really have anyone to share their ennui and exhaustion with, we do. The world is open to us, our opinions, and our endorphins.
While things may superficially look the same, they really have changed.
A Final Word….
When I was in college, we received syllabi and bought our books at the bookstore. Today, the syllabus can be an email with links to the reading. If you are interested in checking out chapter one of The Feminine Mystique, here is the link.
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