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More On What Women Want

Feb
9
2006

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique has helped preserve the sanity of many, many women whether they’ve read it or not. By writing about and drawing attention to the idea that women don’t need to be stuck in their houses living their lives through a husband and children, she’s helped keep many a mother from the bottle. Or the pills. Or the compulsively read romance novels. Or whatever outlet intelligent women who felt trapped in the wrong role found to try to compensate.
She helped make it easier for some of the mothers I know to love being mothers – by working at jobs they love that enable them to hire lots of child care. Sure there are occasional notices of women saying no thank you to work – like the NY Times article about some college women planning to leave careers for stay-at-home motherhood – but there’s no question these days that women are entitled to careers. (Granted, the option of pursuing a “career” or staying home with kids is only available to women with financial means of some kind. But having that option is at least one part of the solution.) This was not always the case.
Although unpleasant aspects of June Cleaver’s life still linger on, like a horror movie monster that won’t die, June has a clear option now that the horror movie victims never get: open the door and walk out of the house. This is a major change in society since Friedan published her book in 1963, and it’s worth remembering in honor of the groundbreaking writer, who died Saturday. It gets lost because there’s still so far to go in achieving equality in work and personal arenas, but it’s still an achievement.
So it’s all good, right? Hey, if everything were perfect we wouldn’t be here. One problem is that some feminists have interpreted the idea that women should be considered free to pursue fulfilling work, to mean that other options are wrong. In other words, that staying home with the kids is a cop-out.
Linda Hirshman in American Prospect went this route recently, arguing that educated women who don’t work are betraying feminism and that “choice” feminism (supporting a choice to stay home, a choice to work, etc.) is wimping out. But Joan Walsh in Salon argues that it’s a misinterpretation of Friedan’s work to use it to judge women’s choices, and that feminism won’t get anywhere if it retreats to being judgmental.

“And now here we areā€¦on the occasion of Friedan’s death, still divided over whether feminism should be about helping women integrate work and family, or helping them see that obsessing about such issues is a distraction that consigns them permanently to second-sex status,” Walsh writes.

Exactly. Hang together or we’ll all hang separately, as Ben Franklin might say were he a contemporary feminist (and welcome to him, I’d say).
And while work possibilities are far removed from what they were in Friedan’s initial analysis, the home front hasn’t come far at all. When women choose to be stay-at-home mothers, there’s still way too much unnecessary desperation in the average suburban home (some desperation is a given around the irrational creatures we call children). Some is caused by the fact that mothering as a job has no status, and society has done little to improve work conditions. But that’s a topic for another day; the bottle, I mean book, I mean kids, are calling me.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 5:07 PM | Permalink

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