I’ve noticed that the past few books I’ve read have had really strong feminist overtones, and it’s kept the topic of feminism at the forefront of my mind for the last several weeks. I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which examines the societal ramifications of adultery committed by women in nineteenth-century Russia; Kathryn Stockett’s The Help follows a group of black maids who agree to tell Skeeter, a white woman writer, their stories about working for white women in Mississippi in the 1960’s, under a veil of secrecy and racial tensions and fear; and I just started reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which is widely considered the manifesto of feminism’s second wave. Reading these stories has made me wonder, just like I always wonder when I watch Mad Men, if I would have been a feminist if I lived in a different era.
I definitely consider myself a feminist, and anyone who knows me well would tell you that I’m incredibly strong-willed and sassy: I’m not scared to be opinionated and I’m not scared to disagree with men or to tell them when I think they’re wrong. But as much as I’d like to think that these are inherent qualities of my being, I have to wonder how much these qualities are actually just a product of the generation I grew up in. My parents always told me that I was smart and that I could do anything I wanted to do; college was never presented as an option, but as something that was required and non-negotiable; I’ve always known what sexual harassment is and have always been encouraged to report it; I know that I can choose whether or not I want to stay at home with my children, or whether I even want to have children. All of these things have just been a matter of fact in my life.
But I wonder: what if I were Anna Karenina in nineteenth century Russia, would I have the courage and conviction to leave a husband that I loathed for a man that I truly loved, even if it meant social disownment and ostracism? What if I were Peggy Olsen in the sixties, would I keep trying to climb the professional ladder to the top rung even though all the other women I knew were just secretaries? What if I were just an average suburban housewife, would I see the same inequalities that Betty Friedan saw and fight for women’s rights as fervently as she did?
Betty Friedan leading a group of demonstrators in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan calls the discontent that housewives felt in that era “the problem that has no name,” and she explains that most women, despite this feeling, simply adjusted to their domestic-bound role or ignored the problem, because “it can be less painful, for a woman, not to hear the strange, dissatisfied voice stirring within her.” I feel like that encapsulates so much of what it means to be a woman, even now. As women, I feel like we’ve shouldered so much of the blame for so many different kinds of problems, that it’s become second nature to think that if we’re discontent it is our fault. Would I have been one of those women who swallowed their dissatisfaction with their lives, who just kept on smiling until it hurt and who vacuumed the floor in heels and felt guilty for not having an orgasm over doing housework? I worry that I would have been one of those college-educated housewives in the suburbs, sitting at home all day with my children, bored out of my mind but resigned to what I knew was “my place.” I can see it. I could have been a Betty Draper. Because as opinionated and sassy as I am, I’m also a rule-follower; sadly, I’ve never been much of a rebel. And no mother would have raised me to be self-confident and self-sufficient and sharp-tongued if I was growing up in the sixties or earlier; I would have been raised to fall in line with all the other women, who were taught that all they should desire in life was to get married and have children. It makes me kind of sad to think that I probably never would have been a mover or a shaker in the feminist movement like the great Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem or Simone de Beauvoir. But I’d like to think that even if I wasn’t marching for women’s equality, that I would support the cause in my mind and secretly know that feminism was right.
And even though there is such a long way to go in the area of women’s rights, I’m so grateful that I’ve grown up in the aftermath of the feminist movement, reaping its benefits unknowingly (up until recently, that is) and possessing an awareness of the inequality that women live with and put up with. With such awareness and such freedom as I have, how could I not want to be a feminist crusader, at least in my everyday life if not on a national or universal scale? I owe it to Betty.