This week marked the 46th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique – the groundbreaking book by Betty Friedan that helped spark the modern women’s movement. In identifying “the problem that had no name” – educated women unfulfilled by their lives as suburban housewives – she pointed out that this problem was not one of individual women suffering from neurosis but the result of a larger social structure that idealized domesticity and didn’t allow women to seek fulfillment in other ways.
As I sit here writing, I’m watching the clock to see how many more minutes until my kids’ nap time is over and I need to shut the computer. And frankly, though I am so grateful for the numerous ways that feminism has transformed American society, these days I am keenly feeling the incompleteness of this revolution.
The “problem that has no name” has morphed into several problems, with various names: “the myth of the superwoman” and “the second shift” among them. Take me, for example: an urban working mom with two kids, a husband, a PhD, a mortgage, and a senior position (albeit 4/5th time) in a challenging job. I was raised to expect I would have all these things, and yet juggling them is much harder than I ever expected. Something’s got to give.
What gives? Well, my ambition, for one, seems to have taken a hit. The egalitarian ideals that we wrote into our ketubah, for another, remain hanging on our wall, behind glass.
Sometimes my husband and I joke about how we really need a wife to make our lives feel more manageable; sometimes we say we really need a servant. The apparent interchangeability of the two makes me shudder. And I've noticed, in this Obama age of change, that my friends who have ascended to the most impressive jobs are almost entirely either men with stay at home wives or single women.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being a mother. It’s by far the most meaningful and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I’ve made choices – had the luxury to make choices, really – about my priorities, choosing, for example, to work outside of the home, but not full-time.
But it’s not all about choices. There are still structural inequalities that define the options. In today’s world, where two incomes are necessary to live a middle-class life, where nuclear families live in their own little, inefficient units without much help from extended family, where child care for toddlers costs as much as college tuition, where you're lucky if you get any paid maternity leave, where men still generally earn more than women, where the average working woman spends more hours per week on domestic duties than housewives did in the 1950s… we don’t choose freely.
My female friends and I talk about these issues frequently, usually at the playground. Sometimes the tone is joking and ironic, wondering how we ended up here. Sometimes it’s despairing. We all read The Feminine Mystique. We know that the personal is political. And yet we don’t know how to move beyond the playground conversation. We don’t know what the next step is, how to make change in our own lives or in the wider society, how to spark the next feminist revolution. And anyway, nap time is over.