The Second Wave Women’s Movement (1960s-1980s)

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This is the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine from 1972. How many of those article headlines apply to us today in 2021?

Photo Credit: Preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Spring, 1972, Liberty Media for Women, LLC.: Missvain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Women’s Equality Day is today and we want to celebrate!

It’s been a slow-going process for us to gain equality and even more slow-going to define for ourselves what that really means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines equality as “the state of being equal” (not very helpful, is it?) The word “equal” is defined as “of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another”. So equality is about sameness, right? It’s no wonder why many women (including one of my favorite musical artists, Kate Bush) mistake feminism for “wanting to be just like men”.

But from the beginning of its roots, the women’s movement was never about being “the same as men”. Suffragists wanted the vote (which they got in 1920) not because they wanted to think and act just like men, but because they wanted a say in public policies that affected them specifically, such as property laws, sanitary childbirth methods, and respect for their womanly virtues. 

But what’s more ironic is second-wave feminists defined equality as anything but sameness. The movement was, in fact, a highly personal one. It’s no wonder the feminist slogan became “the personal is political”. It grew out of mid-century women’s realization they were not living in a vacuum. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (which I talk more about here), was inspired by personal stories of the women she interviewed for women’s magazines in the 1950s, suburban housewives who had every material comfort but had lost their voices and their souls in the bargain. Again and again, Friedan heard tales of discontentment, anger, oppression, and guilt from these women which mirrored her own feelings. When the book was published, other women gathered in consciousness-raising groups and shared stories with one another. It was their desire to seek change for themselves and their sisters that sparked the movement.

In essence, the second-wave feminist movement begins where the suffragists left off. Suffragism (the right to vote) was what Victorian and Progressive Era women needed, a voice in the public sphere. Second-wave feminists of the 1960s took that voice to the next level. They identified issues affecting all women and lobbied for changes. For example, at the top of their agenda list was workplace discrimination. Issues such as affirmative action for women and abolishing segregated help wanted ads, which allowed employers to advertise jobs for women that they felt were suited to them based on gender, helped women get better jobs. This was a political stand, to be sure, but it was also a highly personal one that affected individual women’s lives.

Another issue of concern to women at this time was reproductive rights. The Pill was approved by the FDA in 1961, which was a major step forward for women. It gave many women the right to hold off having children until they (and not society) were ready for them. It also meant women who preferred to focus on a career and not have children could do so. They helped put the decision to “fulfill a woman’s role” (in conventional terms) in the hands of women and not men.

The second-wave women’s movement wasn’t all roses and chocolate, though. Within the movement, women didn’t always agree on what they should be fighting for. For example, Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 but stepped down four years later because she felt the increasing radical views coming from younger feminists didn’t gel with her own. NOW felt Friedan’s fight for working women wasn’t as high on the feminist agenda as she thought it should be.

In addition, women of color saw the movement dominated by middle-class white women and the issues most relevant to them neglected. They felt their experiences, especially with racism and classism, were overlooked and that separating discrimination by sex and by race was defeating the purpose of abolishing discrimination entirely. While there were many strong voices for women of color and their unique experiences (such as bell hooks and Angela Davis), they tended to be attached more to the civil rights movement than the feminist movement. Other women as well, such as working-class and LGBT women, pointed out the exclusion of issues more intimately related to them for those that affected their white, middle-class, educated sister more.

These omissions are, in fact, what the third-wave feminist movement (roughly, from the late 1980s to today) is about. That movement expands not only to all issues affecting all women personally but around the globe, which is why the movement has also been called “global feminism”.

How did the women who preceded the second-wave feminist movement feel in their lives? Read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to find out.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

Do you think the “personal is political” approach still exists among the younger generation of women fighting for their rights in the 21st century? Let me know in the comments!

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Is The Feminine Mystique Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

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Photo Credit: Book cover for The Feminine Mystique, 1984, Del/Laurel reissue edition: VCU CNS/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

“We don’t need feminism anymore.”

How many times have I heard that one? And usually by twenty-something young ladies who, bless them, have never experienced the kind of oppression older women have and whose mothers have never experienced it. 

I shouldn’t say “never” really because all women (regardless of age, ethnicity, gender identity, etc) have experienced some kind of oppression. A writer friend recently posted a meme to Facebook on all the things women couldn’t do in the first half of the 20th century, including serving on a jury and own a credit card. When we look at history, that list of what women couldn’t achieve grows exponentially. Think how 19th-century women couldn’t even own property that was left to them. Henry James’ novella Washington Square is all about a young lady (considered “plain” and not very socially inept) who is wooed by a handsome, charming young man who wants to marry her — you guessed it — for her money. Her father threatens to leave his money to worthy charities. Notice he doesn’t say “I’ll leave the money to my daughter and only to my daughter.” Why? Because even if he did, the money would revert to her husband’s control because she wouldn’t be allowed to own it (money is, or was in the 19th century, property).

Last year, when I published my post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, I wrote this blog post about Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique. I had read snippets of the book in grad school but it was only after reading the entire book that it made a huge impression on me. Friedan’s feminine mystique (that fairytale woman who was born to be a mother, wife, caretaker — in other words, whose entire being was defined in her relationships to others and how she could serve those others) resonated with me because these women were my mother’s generation. I saw so much of my mother’s life in the feminine mystique (hence the title of my collection) and the frustration and rage and guilt she experienced as a woman (as opposed to her role as mother, wife, nurse, and caretaker). Now, at the age of seventy-eight, my mom still struggles with being the perfect wife and mother. 

We might ask, is the younger generation right? Didn’t we put the feminine mystique to rest in the 1970s and 1980s during the second-wave feminist movement? Aren’t women doing more than ever now, no longer expected to devote all their lives to home and family if they don’t choose to? Aren’t women making great strides in all areas of life (politics, society, economics, etc.) and in all corners of the globe? 

Perhaps herein lies the problem. There is no question we’re making strides everywhere and we are showing our strength in so many different ways. But we are also still expected to take on the feminine mystique and prioritize it above everything else. As Hanna Rosin points out in this article, if the goal of the women’s movement was to redefine women’s roles and women’s identity, we’ve really only added to them.

This is essential to understanding how the feminine mystique has surfaced during the COVID pandemic, more so than perhaps in the past few decades. This article talks about the social safety net (the place where family care happens) and how the pandemic has only increased the expectations for women (the article refers mostly to mothers, but I expand this to all women because we’ve been expected to be the caregivers to everyone, not just our kids) to create that place of shelter so many of us have needed during this time. Stay-at-home orders increased the burden on many women to create that safe space for children, husbands, parents, and others. Many women also lost their jobs during the pandemic, leaving the part of them that pursued financial stability and (hopefully) professional success empty. 

We can’t quite say we’re in the same spot with the feminine mystique in the 2020s as we were in the 1950s. Many women discovered their creativity during the pandemic with the slew of creative courses and Zoom videos (paid and free) offered through social media groups and on the internet. As a writer, I saw a huge increase in writing-related online events (including “writing sprints” where people get together on Zoom and just write). These are quite different from the feminist consciousness-raising groups that saw many women through their frustrations and rage in the 1960s and 1970s but perhaps they are also more positive because women had the opportunity to strengthen their identities and get support for their artistic passions through these events.

I sincerely hope one day we will be able to say “we don’t need feminism anymore” and “the feminine mystique doesn’t exist”. But for now, I think it’s safe to say we still have far to go when it comes to opening up our hearts and souls to all that we can do as women and how we define ourselves as women and as human beings.

If you want to read stories about suburban women in the 1950s escaping the feminine mystique, read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life here.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

How would you answer someone who told you, “The feminine mystique doesn’t exist in 2021?” Tell me in the comments!

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The Feminine Mystique

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Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Last year, most of my work focused on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me.

But last year, I decided I wanted a redo of the first book I ever published and the book evolved into a historical short story collection that takes place during the post-WWII era. The stories and their resilient protagonists were inspired by the social and psychological history of women in the 1950s. The one that made me aware of the paradox of the “happy housewife” which is so prevalent a theme in the stories of Lessons From My Mother’s Life was Betty Friedan.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this paradox to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s, especially housewives just like herself. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.     

The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social, and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is little else outside these social constructs that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:

“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)

I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

You’ve probably heard The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:

The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)

From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it when it first came out in 1963.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, just like any other seminal work on gender politics. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement which often addressed the needs of white middle-class women first. The issues relating to women of color, working-class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were either put on the back burner or left out entirely (until women of color and lesbians spoke out and began to form their own groups). The third-wave feminist movement which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s (and still going on today), rectified this situation, as it strives to include all women’s issues and has earned the name “global feminism.” 

The book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was not enough for any woman rubbed a lot of housewives (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life contains fictional representations of the feminine mystique. The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one way or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student in love and about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds in them a message about the consequences of letting love define who you are. The message both entices and frightens her.

To learn more about this book, which reached #1 on the Amazon charts, please visit this page.    

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do. Here’s the link! 

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Personal and The Political: “Two Sides of Life”

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Photo Credit:  xavigm99/Depositphotos.com       

One of the popular slogans of the second wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s was “the personal is political”. The main idea behind this slogan fits in with the idea of the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the time, where women opened up about their personal experiences in order to gain insights into the larger picture of women’s social, psychological, and political oppression. It’s true when women address issues that affect them (even today, when our issues are different from those of our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers), things tend to get personal.

One of the stories in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, integrates both the personal and the political. It’s one of the few semi-biographical pieces I’ve written. It includes both physical and psychological elements that come from my life, but, on the more political side, it touches upon two themes Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, discussed which sparked the women’s movement.

The story didn’t begin as this complex tapestry of public and private. In fact, it was one of those writerly moments where an interesting anecdote my mother related to me became the germ of a story. Years ago, I was chatting with my mom on the phone, and she told me an interesting incident that happened for her recent birthday dinner which, living on the other side of the world, I couldn’t attend. My dad took her to a nice restaurant, as he usually does on her birthday, and when the check arrived, the server informed them the bill had been paid. It turned out my father, who was working as a quality control consultant at the time, befriended one of his assistants whom had recommended an elegant restaurant for him to take my mom on her birthday. The young man, who met my mom and been impressed with her warmth and vivacity (as many people usually are), then surprised my parents by paying the restaurant bill.

I wrote the story as a contemporary work of fiction and posted it for a while as a freebie on my website. When I made the shift last year from contemporary to historical fiction, I took the story down, meaning to revise it. Toward the end of last year, when I began examining my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, in preparation for this upcoming second edition, I removed the title story (as it didn’t fit in with the themes I had planned for the new edition) and went searching for another story to take its place. I realized the story I had written about my mother’s birthday dinner (then, titled “A Birthday Gift”) would fit in nicely with the new collection.

I kept the incident of the birthday dinner and the paid bill, but when I reworked the story, these moved to the background while the story became more about the relationship between the protagonist Leanne and her husband of twenty years, Calvin. Leanne, like many suburban housewives of the mid-20th century, had been indoctrinated into the feminine mystique and, like many of these women, had become frustrated by what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name”. The story opens on the day of her forty-second birthday. Her husband Calvin (an intelligent but emotionally distant professor — somewhat modeled after my father) “suggests” she head on over to one of their neighbors (Paul, a young man who is Calvin’s lab assistant) and offer to help with Paul’s six-year-old son’s birthday party. Leanne agrees, though reluctantly. The party proves to be a turning point for her, as she bonds unexpectedly with Paul’s wife, Arlene, who represents a familiar sort of young woman we see today, but who was a anomaly in the 1960s: The woman who was making a name for herself in her chosen field while juggling the role of wife and mother. Leanne, like many women brought up on the feminine mystique, judges Arlene at first, but comes to realize her judgement is misplaced:

“Arlene says women today can have a career and a family too, if they just make sacrifices and balance everything correctly,” he said. “It’s what she’s trying to do, and so are most of the girls who graduated with her at Mills College.” He looked at her again. “Do you think a woman who has a job can’t be a good wife and mother too?”

She felt the breeze around her turn into waves, returning the strange chill she had felt that morning. The noise of happy children dimmed, replaced by the loud caw of birds. She realized they were standing under a nest where baby birds chirped out their starvation. She saw the head of the mother, its grim beak set and its gorging eyes searching the ground. She recognized the basic instinct of a mother on her children.

“I think any woman could do anything, if she sets her mind to it,” she said softly. “And I can see Arlene has her mind set on it. I’ve no right to judge her, and I’m sorry I did.”

“Oh, I don’t blame you,” he said. “I do the same thing myself, when I’ve seen her going into the den and locking the door, and Arnold looking after her like a lost puppy.”

“She has no choice.” The veil of hostility that had been weighing over Leanne’s eyes lifting, along with the chattering of baby birds. “She wants to be more than what women of my generation were.”

Later, Leanne sees how she and Arlene are both trapped in the same cage of feminine expectations, though their lives are very different. They are, in fact, the two sides of life for women in the mid-20th century.

The story takes place prior to the women’s movement era, but there are sparks of what would drive women to fight for their place in the world beyond home and family in this story and in others in the collection. For my mother, there was no Arlene, but after my siblings and I left home and built our own lives, she found her own interests and activities. However, my mom had the benefit of the times on her side. I don’t think anyone can dispute the late 20th century was kinder and more progressive toward women than the years forty or fifty years prior to it.

If you want to read more of “Two Sides of Life”, you can do so when Lessons of My Mother’s Life comes out in March 2020. More about the book can be found here.

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The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.     

I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name. 

This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.

That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.

The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment. 

But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it. 

This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.

The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.

If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.     

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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