Sometimes I suspect I was born a few decades too late. My initial reaction to Betty Friedan’s death two weeks ago was just further evidence. Despite being two generations removed, reading her obituary left struck me with nostalgia for an era that I completely missed. It’s not the 1950s glorification of the middle-class suburban housewife that prompted Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” that I’m longing for – I’m grateful to pass on that one.
Rather, I would have liked to be around for the years that followed its publication, when women across the country came out to fight for gender equality instead of trying to convince themselves that everything is just fine. It seems I’m too late. Prominent feminists are fading away, and images of angry, sign-waving feminists from the 1970s have been relegated to textbooks. The struggle may have more or less stopped, and “feminist” has been reduced to a derogatory name for women suspected of not knowing their new, improved place in the world – but things are not equal.
Two generations later, much of what outraged Friedan has improved. Unlike in the 1950s, women face little expectation that we enter college in pursuit only of an MRS degree, more concerned with completing our four years with an engagement ring on one hand than a degree in the other.
But for all these years of struggle, women never really got much further than gaining the right to wear pants in fancy restaurants and more choices for middle-class women in the job market. With the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment still a fresh memory, the movement was quietly declared done, and those who persisted were labeled radical or man-hating.
Of course, there were those who were radical and hated men. Valarie Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto” (that’s the Society for Cutting Up Men) is a perfect example. She wrote: “There remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” Even if Solanas hadn’t gone from being a militant feminist to a homicidal nutcase – she shot Andy Warhol the same year her book was published – her beliefs wouldn’t have done much to help the women’s rights movement.
If calling oneself a feminist means identifying with Solanas, no wonder the word has become so unpopular. A CBS News poll last year found that just 24 percent of women considered themselves feminists. Once the pollster defined a feminist as “someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,” that number rose to 65 percent.
Does that mean that a third of women don’t support social, political or economic equality? Or does it suggest that the negative connotation of feminism has overwhelmed any further discussion? Either way, it’s not a good sign.
Even more disturbing is the notion that it may take a good deal of convincing to win over these women who aren’t so sure about feminism’s worth. The same poll found more than a quarter of women said the movement made their lives worse.
It would seem that striving for gender equality would be a positive thing. Indeed, feminism’s gains – not just of the 1960s and ’70s, but throughout the past century – gave women all sorts of choices previously denied them. These crazy, radical changes let young women define themselves in new ways, not just as future mothers or wives. Women could have their own interests, occupations and identities. They gained more choices over what to wear, where to work and when to have children.
Not all choice is easy choice, and perhaps here is where some women become disillusioned. The genders are certainly more equal than a few decades ago, but it is still women, not men, who overwhelmingly must juggle home time and work time. A U.S. Department of Labor report revealed women spend an average of one more hour a day on housework than men. Not too surprisingly, another 2003 study from the University of Maryland found men average almost a half-hour per night more free time than women.
Even if there’s some inner peace to be had from scrubbing toilets and making dinner every night, this difference suggests that equality is still a goal (I hope), not a reality.
What started out as Friedan’s cry to free women from vacuum cleaners did make a lot of gains, but fizzled out prematurely. Too many problems – violence against women, wage gaps, sexism and homophobia – exist to pretend an unfinished movement was good enough.
When the lasting image of feminism is makeup-less women throwing out their razors (the horror!), and the whole idea is unfairly lumped together with everything from hating God to murdering men, you’ve got a movement that can’t even unite people under the idea of equality. To carry out the work that started decades before Friedan and others, we need an inclusive movement that spans generations and fights for the equality that is relevant to both men and women. And yes, we might still call it “feminism.”
Beam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.