Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, exposed the misery of well-educated suburban housewives and catalyzed the women’s liberation movement.
In the 1970s, feminism confused me. Who should pay on dates? Should men still open doors for women? The guys were perplexed, too. Some feared that women would resent them for being courteous, chide them for being a “male chauvinist pig.” Feminists sported T-shirts proclaiming: “A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle.”
Cute, I thought. Still, I hoped to marry.
I tried paying my way on dates and opening my own doors. When a man let me do either, I felt unfeminine and lost interest in him. I liked gallantry.
An aha! moment seized me during a staff training event at the alcoholism treatment center in San Francisco where I worked. I was a happily single liberated woman with a successful career and social life who took charge of her own destiny — or so I thought.
We were told to close our eyes and choose a role that expressed a fantasy about our future selves. Sitting in a circle on the floor of a large sunlit room, one by one each of us shared our chosen role. Everyone was surprised, but no one more so than I, when I blurted out: “housewife with two children.”
Aggh! I had exposed myself as a 1950s type of woman.
Compared to other women in her generation, my mother was liberated. She loved her career as a physical education teacher in New York City schools. I remember the excitement in her voice during dinner when she spoke about teaching dance steps she’d invented for her delighted girls’ gym classes.
My Aunt Betty did the normal thing. She quit college to marry and become a housewife and mother. Unlike my mother, who cooked dinner and did the dishes afterward but had little energy for much else, Aunt Betty watched soap operas and kept her home immaculate. She stayed serene around her two children from whom she took no sass and had a hot meal on the table when her husband came home. She read women’s magazines and shopped for flattering clothes that she wore even while dusting.
Is it any wonder that I was confused? Who was really the liberated one — my stressed-out mother who eventually endured a heartbreaking divorce or my calm homemaker aunt who stayed happily married?
When accused in the past of not behaving in accordance with feminist ideals, I said, “I will not be enslaved by women’s liberation.” Feminism means freedom to choose how to spend your life, not marching lockstep into an ideology that relegates housewife and mother to second-class citizenship.
I met the other Betty — Betty Friedan — when she spoke some time ago in Marin County, California. Still single, I’d attracted men easily until reaching my late thirties. When my gray hairs started showing, I became invisible to men. I didn’t want to feel forced to dye my hair. I thought a liberated woman like me shouldn’t have to do something so unnatural.
Betty Friedan’s hair was gray. Hoping for sage advice, I said, “I want to get married, but to attract a man I need to look young. Should I dye my hair?”
Betty Friedan said, “Just be sure you know why you are doing it.” She was saying not to let anyone else define me, to be myself on the inside. I liked that. Perhaps because her 17-year marriage was fraught with fighting and ended in divorce, she added, “I’m better at feminism than marriage.”
So I started dying my hair. The men came back and I married one.
When our son was born, I quit my job. But when the novelty of stay-at-home motherhood wore off, I longed for camaraderie with colleagues. I felt lonely and trapped at home.
As soon as my son was ready, I resumed my career. Sometimes I think I’d like a calmer life and a more orderly home, like Aunt Betty’s. But I love my work. My husband and I share high-priority chores and may ignore other ones for a while. I can relate to the wooden sign that hung on my mother’s kitchen wall: “My house is clean enough to be healthy but messy enough to be happy.”
Generalizing from my experience, I believe today’s woman’s challenge is to make choices that fit who she is inside. Instead of expecting to be superwoman, exhausted and guilt-ridden from attempting to excel with both a spotless home and a sterling career, each of us has to create our own balance.
Housewife image available from Shutterstock