My mother’s best friend in the suburban edge of Bethesda, Maryland, where I spent part of my childhood, was Pearl.
I don’t know why or how the subject came up, but my mother told me once that Pearl might not have been the best cook or housekeeper, something not usually confessed in those post-World War II years by women who, if asked, called themselves housewives or homemakers. Nonetheless, Pearl’s skills in that arena may have been shaky or they may have been stellar, but what my mother, her lifelong friend, recalled was that she liked to polish doorknobs, which became the subject of a poem I wrote when I was approximately the age these women were — my mother and Pearl — when they were living in that subdivision:
Pearl polished door knobs
when she felt like fleeing,
took out the jar of wax
and spread it until
the twenty knobs lit up
like candles in a Cathedral sanctuary.
If she could not keep her house shining,
she would light up the first surface
her guests touched,
gloves grayed by the Maryland slush.
If the wash piled up in the basement
and the sterilizer never emptied of caked bottles,
the knobs on the bedroom and kitchen door
had the ordered gleam of a hotel suite.
If she ever felt like deserting that three bedroom
one bath and den brick house on the corner,
she never let the thought come any clearer than
the urge to take her phone off the hook,
put her children in a warm soak,
and wipe those knobs until she could say:
I have finished something.
That three bedroom, one bath, and den brick house on the corner was one postage-stamp-sized bedroom (an add-on) smaller than one my parents owned in the modest neighborhood that may have been a ringer for Levittown on Long Island in New York, the first one of its kind, built for families no longer living on farms or in tenements.
As New York Times columnist Gail Collins described such suburbs, their owners had for the most part one car, taken to work by the husband. By day, the women were left behind in neighborhoods, as she writes, that were filled with other women of the same age and circumstances, whose lives revolved around their household chores and their children.
They had come from rural communities, city blocks, or, in my mother’s case, a struggling mill town in Western Massachusetts, children of the Depression, young adults of a war economy that emptied out colleges and offices of men. My mother had majored in sociology and then taken a job with the Red Cross before marrying my father, a newly minted PhD in microbiology, on the lowest rungs of virus research, and starting their family of four children, their own boomlet, all born within five years. Due to the postwar bump in jobs for men and income, and the availability of good mortgages through the GI bill, my parents, like many others, could afford at least a small starter home and get by on just the husband’s income.
Taking care of this closely spaced brood occupied my mother — in fits and starts — for the first years of our lives in that isolated community of women without wheels, miles from the nearest grocery store, library, even school (we were bused a few miles away).
They may have joked that they were their own bosses after early experiences taking orders in outside workplaces, but the work they now did involved diaper pails and countless loads of laundry (an average of 65 pounds a week) in those new machines that replaced the one million manual washboards their mothers had depended on, cooking without the benefit of microwave or even much, if any, frozen food (lots of cream of mushroom soup), and the kind of cleaning they felt compelled to do, from venetian blind dusting to lemon-waxed kitchen countertops.
In fact, despite the time-saving appliances and the arrival of permanent-press clothing (and the steam iron), according to one sociology study, by the 1960s the fulltime homemaker was spending 55 hours a week on her household chores, a little more than in the 1920s when women, as the study pointed out, were still washing by hand and keeping their food cold in iceboxes.
These “unemployed” housewives were spending twice as many hours as their working sisters attending to the cooking, cleaning, and other chores, regardless of whether they had children or outside help. One woman described her conviction that everything had to be cleaned every day — had to vacuum every day, had to clean the bathroom every day. I was fanatic.
She ironed everything herself, including the bed sheets, personally repainting the entire inside of her house every winter and keeping a garden every summer.
She was kept busy, as were my mother and her friend Pearl, especially when their children were small, but by 1960, the first of the baby boomer children were in high school, and they were left with the specter of an entirely emptied out nest, and the fact, as the editors of Harper’s observed in a special issue on American women in 1962, that “whether one finds it richly rewarding or frustrating, there is one trouble with motherhood as a way of life. It does not last very long.”
These women, who would outlive any other generation, who may have been, like my mother and Pearl, college educated, but either not prepared or encouraged to prepare for a long tenure in the workplace outside the home, rarely publicly expressed discontentment, let alone rage at the reality of their current lives or the prospects before them, what a Newsweek issue of the time noted as the 45 or so years of leftover life that the average housewife had to live after her last child entered school.
And then, at least for a generation of middle-class women, the ice began to crack when a bright, discontented, and vocal Smith-graduate mother of three living in a restored Victorian house on the Hudson River in New York named Betty Freidan sent out an alumnae questionnaire for an article she was freelancing for Mc Calls magazine, a piece that was intended to show how her fellow graduates had used their college degrees as perfect preparation for their expected roles as wives and mothers.
And got back a very different response, as many of her peers told Friedan that they were either vaguely discontented, slowly going crazy, or desperate, that at least in this group of women there were no happy housewives — or a scant few, as Gail Collins tells us in her recent book: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.
Based on Friedan’s own experiences passing as a typical stay-at-home housewife, but in reality an accomplished writer in a troubled marriage, and the stories told her by the women she polled, Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, described by Collins as like an earthquake compared to the tremor about unhappy housewives that had been registered before, filtered as they had been, in male-edited publications and other media.
In her probably unexpectedly influential book, Friedan wrote that while it was natural to want marriage and children, the feminine mystique — that full-time housekeeping was the be-all and end-all for women — their natural destiny — has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive (and this is an American-focused conversation). There is no way, she argued, for these women to break out of their comfortable concentration camps except by finally putting forth an effort — that human effort which reaches beyond biology, beyond the narrow walls of home, to help shape the future. A call to arms, as is pointed out, that at least called for the possibility of outside employment.
One woman remembers she had been hanging her family laundry in tears, picked up a paperback copy and it got her fired up, I mean like it was 95 percent true to my experience. She gave it to her best friend, who read it and got a divorce.
My mother read the book shortly after it was in print, but had already begun to cause her own tremors and ultimately an earthquake in her marriage years before the book came out, having moved to California when my father took a new research position and tired of canasta and teaching ballroom dancing to my sixth-grade class, or leading our girl scout troop, or writing humorous accounts of our cross-country camping trips that never saw a publisher. By 1960, my youngest brother was indeed in school all day, she was bored with cooking and filling the freezer, and even drying apricots from the nearby orchards was no longer an adventure. Money had always been tight, her gifts under-used, and her energy high.
She decided to go back to college, got her master’s degree in recreation and leisure studies — since at the time it looked like we would be needing to plan for more of this and more retirement years, and began her gradual departure from a daily life in the home.
Her husband, my father, did not understand what he saw as a change in intention, a change in heart: her role as mother of four wanted children no longer enough to keep her fulltime involvement and passion, let alone the wife of a now successful scientist, head of his own lab, living in an idyllic university town.
Even for me, her daughter, who would benefit from the moves made by women like her, choosing to re-enter the world of outside work even without widowhood, divorce, or absolute economic necessity, her decision hit harder than I thought at the time, leading to my writing 20 years later in a poem:
Mother’s Mexican Skirt
Every morning you vanished over
The walls of my life,
Your grown child
I pull you back inside
On a rope of guilt,
And hold you prisoner
On warm brownie afternoons
Sewing a Lady Guinevere hat
For my fifth Halloween.
I wrap you
In that Mexican circle skirt,
All black sequins and red embroidered
And you, reeking of bordertown Tabu,
Dance in the mirror
And have nowhere else to go.
While my mother’s private revolution was going on, with some local context, in her larger world what started as a joking amendment to the employment discrimination section of the Civil Rights Act offered by a traditional Southern member of the House of Representatives, Howard Smith, (as a way he thought of finally killing the bill) was passed, despite itself, something many women activists at the time had been reluctant to ask for, given the long history of not wanting to mix the issues around slavery and racism with the status of white women. In fact ,the civil rights battles of the Sixties went to the core, as Collins has written, of the nation’s identity — how far we had diverged from the standards set by the Declaration of Independence, opening up, we are told, questions of fairness for other discriminated against groups, including women.
When no sooner than the amendment — and the entire act — was written into law and it was clear to many women that no effort would be made to enforce its provisions, what some have called the women’s NAACP — the National Organization for Women, or NOW, was formed, taking to the courts and the streets to protect the office workers, the factory workers, women with preschool children, flight attendants saddled with marriage and age barriers, weight limitations, and the others who continued to find and battle discrimination.
Despite the torrent of jokes about male Playboy bunnies and the myth of bra burning that was perpetuated out of a random remark during a Miss America Pageant protest, the rebellion, Gail Collins tells us, was going to go much farther, much faster than anyone who was there at the beginning might have imagined.
When everything changed — when, joined by more radical and in many cases younger women, this new “Second Wave” women’s movement went way beyond antidiscrimination laws, particularly employment. When women were not only leaving homemaking and parenting as exclusive occupations but applying for medical school and getting law degrees, holding consciousness raising meetings to talk about their need for help raising children and their intimate sexual desires, winning the best places in colleges, suing to join the Little League.
This sea change was not of course solely the result of a single best-selling, landmark book by a talented woman writer — or the efforts of a group of powerful women activists. It came, Collins argues, from our very history, in a country where from the outset women had been counted on to fill low paying jobs, whether the first public school teachers during the Revolutionary War, or during later wartimes when they were asked, or more accurately nagged, to go to work to fill the millions of jobs left vacant by men in the military. In the postwar, sixties job boom, they were wooed into the job market, married women with children as well as single women, to work in pink collar jobs for IBM, Texas Instruments, temp agencies, laying the groundwork for the larger movement toward pay equity and other issues ahead. Two income families could buy the second cars, second televisions, and other goodies that defined 20th century consumer life.
And the pill not only brought sexual liberation for women — it also brought their employers, male and female, some assurance that if a woman said she did not want to get pregnant, she would not. If she wanted advanced education or training, she would be in the workplace long enough to justify the effort and expense.
What began perhaps as personal choice for many women became by the 1970s a crucial contribution to household incomes, as weekly paychecks of non-management workers began to fall and families began to count on double salaries. It was no longer a hypothetical or optional change.
Despite the disappointing throwbacks and losses of the next decades — anti-abortion and anti-contraception forces, now showing up front and center in health insurance reform; the failure of the Equal Rights Movement; and still far less than comparable, even equal wages for women, it has seemed to many women, younger women in particular, that what had been called women’s liberation was assumed, like fluoride in the water.
What does fluoride in the water have to do with discussion of the status of women?
Metaphorically a great deal, because for a generation of younger women, according to self-described Third Wave feminist authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, on a personal level, feminism and women’s rights, is everywhere, in the water, like fluoride. In many very basic ways, these women under thirty have never lived a day without television (or personal computers for that matter), or without the fluoride that was added to some municipal water supplies around fifty years ago, keeping my teeth and those of my sons and daughter strong and less diseased.
And like fluoride in the water, everywhere and invisible, the lives they are leading as women, the days they are living with feminism and the reforms that came with them, did not happen simply and effortlessly. It wasn’t always so and getting there was not easy.
Which can be frustrating to Second Wave feminist women, the real and symbolic mothers of these daughters, who feel that younger women are unappreciative, that they have put up a wall of ignorance about the history of activism that won what has become an accustomed way of life.
I admitted earlier my own deafness and blindness, or more accurately my own deliberate unwillingness to enter my mother’s adult universe, in fact my tendency to actively reject it. I did not want to hear her excitement about the changes she sought in her own life, because I would have to acknowledge the price she and her children paid in a damaged and ultimately broken marriage. How deeply ingrained and strong the pull of patriarchy and misogyny was on my father and on our own family.
I had to reject her and her life choices, refuse to recognize what she and the few other women she found who supported her had done for their daughters because of the natural and understandable, and developmentally healthy need to break away — even criticize our mothers, real and metaphorical — and maybe the less healthy tendency to see only what was still wrong with our mothers and their tendency to want us to acknowledge, ad nauseum, it sometimes seemed to me, their martyrdom. What they had done for us and how ungrateful we were.
In this second decade of the New Millennium, women of the Second Wave of feminism and women’s rights and those of us who immediately followed see, yes, the progress that has continued — seemingly not to be stopped: for the first time women make up half the work force, with mothers being bread earners in forty percent of families, including in around a quarter of couples, up seven percent from 1970. When women no longer need to marry up educationally or economically, sociologists tell us, they are more likely to pick partners who support a more egalitarian relationship. Men more than women receive the biggest economic boost from marriage, especially during this recession, with more men being laid off than women. The divorce rate also seems to fall as women make these kinds of gains.
(Even while women still do about two-thirds of the housework in heterosexual partnerships).
We have a female speaker of the house and a female secretary of state. 32 women have served as governors and 38 as senators. Four out of eight presidents of Ivy League schools are women. Five years after Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, suggested that innate differences might explain why women were, in his opinion, less successful in science and math, the NY Times reported recently that the university is in many ways a different place. Professors can get up to $28,000 to pay for child care, there are new programs to encourage young women to pursue these careers, and seven out of 16 members of Harvard’s Council of Deans are women.
In the arts and culture, a headline following this year’s Grammy Awards proclaimed that this music industry’s top honor went to women: Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift. The first ever best director Academy award went to a woman just last month.
At the same time in our history, retiring columnist Ellen Goodman sums up, in her words, the distance traveled by women as advance and backlash, forward march and stall out.
She worries also about younger women taking whatever progress has been made for granted, though with a mixed sensibility. It is hard to take away, she writes, what is granted. But the troubling news for her is that many think their problems — especially balancing work and family — are private dilemmas to be solved on their own, rather than as a part of a movement for larger transformation.
If the women’s movement were a course, she tells us, she would award it an incomplete.
Incomplete. Unfinished. Like any large-scale reform movement, rights movement, subject to backwards slides and unforeseen peripheral damage. Yes, it appears like a national health insurance reform bill will have passed Congress and yet gains made in private insurance coverage to make abortion financially possible were a major give away. And a group, Feminists for Life, placing subway ads in New York, promises an objective format for describing the impact of abortion on the lives of women but is in reality a strictly anti-abortion project of the Roman Catholic Church to “present the truth of the impact and extensive damage abortion inflicts on the mother, father, extended family, and society.”
Unfinished collective business for American women fifty years following that year when everything changed. Including the emotional toll, what psychotherapist and founding member of the Second Wave feminist movement Harriet Fraad, who believes that this country is in the throes of a crisis in personal and family life. That with the downturn of the real economic standard of living for most Americans over the past decades, there has been a psychological deterioration as well. The more women work outside the home without adequate social support, for example the lack still of a national childcare and child development program, the more stressed, overworked, and emotionally unavailable they become, Fraad believes.
From her mid-life, middle-class perspective, she calls for a return to consciousness-raising, self-help support groups — a way to connect personally and to advocate for material and psychological supports for all kinds of families. She argues for groups that allow, even force, women to realize their interconnectedness and to view individual worth and dignity — and rights — in a more collective context.
My conversations with our Gen X, Y, and Millennial Third Wavers, who are known sometimes to call each other girlies: young, passionate, idealistic girlies they assure us — are asking us to allow them to find their own ways of carrying on the work, by allowing the torch to pass.
Be hopeful they say. (And get out of our way.)
They have their own agendas, they remind us: to out unacknowledged feminists and form a powerful voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds; to support and increase the visibility of bisexual and lesbian women ; to end sexual harassment and bullying in schools and in all walks of life; to make workplaces responsive to individual gifts and needs, including a living wage for all workers; to maybe even pass the ERA — once and for all creating a constitutional foundation for righteousness and equality upon which future women’s rights conventions will stand.
The notion of feminism, that women have a voice and a power and a will to change — specifically in this country — may indeed be like fluoride in the water now, in the years after the years When Everything Changed. And if so, alleluia. It’s there because of those who went before and will remain because of those who go ahead of us, wherever they choose to go.
You go, girlies.