Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Caught in the Middle: Women's Rights and Coming of Age in the Seventies

Men weren’t really the enemy, they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill. – Betty Friedan.
I was born in 1959, when Eisenhower was President and men wore business suits to baseball games. The civil rights movement was still in its infancy, Americans had yet to conquer the moon and Vietnam was a distant, far-off country that few people had heard of. The Cold War was in full bloom, the threat of nuclear annihilation hovered like a dark cloud above, and men ruled the world.

John Kennedy was elected President in 1960, in the Age of Camelot. With a young, handsome President and his glamorous wife on the cover of Life magazine, America was filled with optimism and youthful energy. Sophisticated and regal, Kennedy was, like his predecessors, surrounded almost entirely by men, the Best and the Brightest they would later be called, men who had been educated at Harvard and Yale, Andover and Choate, who promised to “pay any price [and] bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” They possessed an upbeat, optimistic view of the world and of America’s place in it. Although it all ended a few years later at the hands of a lone assassin, it remained a man’s world.

Kennedy’s men, and later Johnson’s and Nixon’s men, would embroil us in a difficult, messy, unjust war and struggle to make sense of changing times, but as a young boy growing up in suburban New Jersey, it seemed perfectly natural that men made the decisions and held positions of power and influence. Virtually all of my role models, the persons I wished to emulate, whether politicians, ballplayers, musicians, or actors, were men.

For the first decade or so of my life, American society had clearly defined roles for the sexes, or so it seemed. Boys were expected to pursue careers in law and medicine, run our companies, make our laws and, when necessary, fight our wars. Girls were expected to get married, have children, and provide emotional support for their families. It was almost that simple. Men were CEOs, Senators and Presidents, doctors, scientists and lawyers. We ran the corporations, the banks, the universities, and the government. Women labored in service-oriented and subservient positions, as nurses, teachers, librarians, and secretaries. The status of women, as explained in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (New York: Basic Books, 1971), was “the result of a slowly formed, deeply entrenched, extraordinarily pervasive cultural (and therefore political) decision that . . . woman shall remain a person defined not by the struggling development of her brain or her will or her spirit, but rather by her childbearing properties and her status as companion to men who make, and do, and rule the earth.”

By the time I entered high school in 1974, the Supreme Court had ruled for 100 years that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to women, who only a half century before had earned the right to vote. Indeed, women were confined to second-class citizenship in most aspects of law and economic life. And while a growing percentage of young women attended college, it was a common refrain even in the mid-1970’s said only partially in jest, that most girls went to college for their “MRS” degrees.

I grew up when Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best filled the screens of American televisions, part of a powerful socialization process reinforced by churches and schools, textbooks and the mass media. Before the advent of Title IX, society encouraged boys to play sports and girls to be spectators and cheerleaders. We were bombarded from infancy with portrayals of stereotypical sex roles, with advertising images of women as housekeepers and mothers, happily folding the laundry and cooking dinner in service to husbands attending to more pressing matters.

And then everything changed.

In 1963, Betty Friedan, a suburban housewife who supplemented her husband’s income by writing freelance articles for women’s magazines, published The Feminine Mystique. Several years earlier, Friedan had surveyed her Smith College classmates at their 15-year reunion and found that this highly educated and talented group of women, mostly housewives in their mid-30’s, were deeply dissatisfied with the state of their lives. From these and other interviews, and drawing on history, psychology, sociology and economics, Friedan wrote what would become one of the most influential books of the 20th Century. The Feminine Mystique described Friedan’s insights into the soul-draining frustrations of educated, stay-at-home women in the 1950’s. She called it “the problem that has no name”:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”
The Feminine Mystique shocked middle class America and became an instant bestseller. It exposed the myth of the happy housewife, an ideal promoted by television, Hollywood, and mass advertising, and helped transform the expectations and roles of American women virtually overnight. With Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and others leading the way, the women’s rights movement pushed for equal pay for equal work, gender-neutral help-wanted ads, maternity leave, child-care centers for working parents, legalized abortion, safe and accessible birth control, laws prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace, and other issues often deemed radical by the standards of the early 1960’s.

I witnessed first-hand the growing consciousness and political empowerment of women in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. However little I may have paid attention to these issues in my younger years, intellectually and rationally, I understood exactly what women were demanding and why, for I wanted the same opportunities for myself. Black Americans and other minorities were properly demanding equal rights in all spheres of American life, so it was only appropriate that women would want these same things. The women I went to school with were just as bright and hardworking as me, so why should they not also be entitled to the same opportunities?

There were times, of course, when I reverted back to socialized sexism, when my competitive instincts and male role models did not easily reconcile to an imagined society in which the sexes were completely equal. I wanted to be respected and admired as a man of importance. I wanted to accomplish big things and be looked upon as someone special. Like any red-blooded American male, I wanted to slay the dragons and be greeted by admiring females. I wanted the women in my life to look at me with pride and affection as I battled the forces of evil and saved the world from destruction. I wanted to be Superman carrying Lois Lane to safety.

But then the rules changed. All of a sudden, women my own age and education level wanted a chance to slay their own dragons and hunt their own prey. They wanted to be Superwoman and didn’t need no stinking Superman. Men were no longer entitled to instant respect. We now had to compete not only with each other, but with women as well.

Had you asked me in high school if I was a feminist, I may have answered, “Sure, I dig chicks.” But I’m a fast learner. By the time I graduated college and entered law school, where I studied alongside lots of really smart, ambitious women who made up nearly half of my law school class, I genuinely embraced and acknowledged the merits of true women’s equality. My female classmates wanted the same opportunities as my male classmates – an interesting and satisfying career. And just like the men, the women saw no reason why they couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to combine a good career with a family.

Of course, American society was divided on the merits of a woman trying to do too much. “What about the children?” was a common refrain. Some contended it selfish and foolhardy for a woman to think she could do what needed to be done to advance in a pressure-filled, demanding legal career and still have time to raise a family. Men were not, were never, in my experience, asked these same questions. And yet, since the industrial revolution, a large percentage of men had failed miserably in mixing ambition with fatherhood. My female classmates understood this, which is why they wanted husbands who bore a greater share of responsibility for child rearing and house chores, who understood instinctively that an even distribution of responsibilities was only fair and just.

In all of my professional life since, I have worked for and beside many bright, talented women. It has always seemed quite natural, as if a continuation of college and law school, when women coexisted as equal partners in education. I have watched many of my female colleagues negotiate the constant struggle of balancing the demands of children with the desire to excel in their careers. When I first joined a large law firm in Washington, D.C., in 1986, a strong push was then being made for fair-minded and liberal family leave policies. It was debated regularly in offices and conference rooms of law firms and corporations, as employers sought to find ways to attract and retain highly qualified women professionals, and to provide the appearance of a family-friendly work environment. But inevitably, stories rolled-in about those who actually took advantage of these policies, who took time off to spend with their newborn infants and paid a price in stifled advancement and delayed career gratification. It could be no other way, really, the economic realities what they are in corporate America. There was still a long way to go.

Many of my friends and spouses, often two career couples, found the demands of toddlers and child care to be equally draining. The frustrations expressed by 1950’s housewives and Betty Friedan’s Smith College classmates were replaced by the frustrations of women (and some men) who, wishing to have it all, found that it was not so easy, that choices and sacrifices inevitably had to be made. Although the opportunities available to women have greatly expanded since The Feminine Mystique was first published, many women discovered that happiness can be elusive, whether pursuing a rewarding career or choosing the undervalued and underappreciated role of housewife and mother, or something in between.

Twenty-six years later, I wonder how many of my classmates have been disappointed with their careers and choices. How many underestimated the deep-seated socialization process that embedded traditional notions of home life in men, even those who seemed to be more progressive minded than most? How many had hoped that corporate America would more quickly adapt family friendly work environments?

The world is today more complex, if not necessarily more advanced. Advertisers and women’s magazines continue to portray the ideal Superwoman as super-thin and sexy, as someone who can wear a size 4 dress and flaunt a Barbie-doll figure while negotiating a merger and spying on the Russians. Pick up any issue of Cosmopolitan magazine and you will see nothing but photographs and articles on fashion, sex, make-up, weight loss, and tips on how to please a man. Meanwhile, American women and girls continue to face a body image crisis, with constant attacks on women’s self-esteem and self-worth. Women today are supposed to want it all, and when life comes up a bit short, when their careers or family lives, or both, do not match the glamorous images of the mainstream media, a crisis of confidence creeps into the mindset of many professional women. Women are now expected to have a career, many by necessity require financial independence, and yet they continue to bear the lion’s share of child rearing and housekeeping responsibilities.

In many ways, the advances made by women in the professions have been both a curse and a blessing to them. Despite the ever present glass ceiling, some women have successfully competed with men for the highest positions in business, law, medicine, and government. Those willing to sacrifice a rich family life, or cherished time with children – the same sacrifices ambitious men have been making for a century – can advance to positions of power and influence. And yet, for many women, a lingering dissatisfaction remains, the reality that merely emulating the life of a high-charging, career-driven man comes with many spiritual and emotional sacrifices, which even for a growing proportion of men, is not worth the cost of lost time with children and families.

Although I have occasionally looked with envy on the societal privileges (white) men enjoyed prior to the sexual revolution and The Feminine Mystique, I am today a better person, a better father, and a better co-worker because of the women’s rights movement. American society has made strides in the right direction. The big law firms, prestigious universities, and some major corporations today offer extended family leave plans, in-house child care options, and flexible work schedules. For my two daughters, I very much desire a world that provides women with the same opportunities and career options as men, that treats men and women with an equal degree of respect, and which allows everyone to pursue their dreams in ways that best fit their talents and skills. But I also hope that my daughters, and all young men and women, recognize that ambition has consequences, and that the dreamed-of career may not alone provide a fulfilling life; that it is important to explore what it means to live fully and passionately, with a sense of purpose and humility, authenticity and simplicity, and to drop preconceived ideas of who and what we are. "Our lives are a mixture of different roles,” said Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Most of us are doing the best we can to find whatever the right balance is . . . For me, that balance is family, work, and service."

The women’s movement will have succeeded if, as a society, we steadily seek a more compassionate and humane world that permits women and men to balance their lives in ways that are good for everyone; that allows us to enrich our spiritual and creative lives, to see the potential in ourselves and in others. For as Greta Crosby advised, “If I could give you one key, and one key only, to a more abundant life, I would give you a sense of your own worth, an unshakeable sense of your own dignity as one grounded in the source of the cosmic dance, as one who plays a unique part in the unfolding of the story of the world.”

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