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2006 Women's History Month

The builders of new myths

Friedan, feminism and the future

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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All revolutionaries, regardless of sex, are the smashers of myths and the destroyers of illusion. They have always died and lived again to build new myths. They dare to dream of a utopia, a new kind of synthesis and equilibrium.

-- Patricia Hayden, Donna Middleton, and Patricia Robinson
from "A Historical and Critical Essay for Black Women," 1969-70(1)

It's always been my goal to help this generation of mothers see their lives and dilemmas as part of the stream of history. My motives for this are not purely intellectual; while I appreciate the advantages of living in an age of high-speed, issue-driven activism, I can't shake the feeling that charting a better course for the future depends on understanding how we got into so much trouble in the first place.

It's widely accepted, for example, that present day tensions about women, work and family -- which are flagrantly on display in the media's obsession with the so-called "mommy wars" -- originated in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan counseled middle-class women to abandon the dreariness of suburban housewifery and seek self-fulfillment through challenging paid work. But in Unfinished Work: Building Equality and Democracy in an Era of Working Families, Jody Heymann, Christopher Beem and other work-life scholars emphasize that the primary source of America's work-family disconnect is not women's pursuit of equality, but the nation's failure to address major economic and demographic shifts caused by the industrial revolution. In the last 150 years, Heymann writes, "there has been a revolution in where, how and by whom paid work is done in industrialized countries. The response to these changes will be critical to the success of American society."

The revival of women's movement clearly played a role in accelerating married mothers' entry into the paid labor force during the second half of the twentieth century. But as David Hernandez explains in his study on the changing demographics of families, rising rates of maternal employment were mainly a reaction to economic conditions.(2) Before 1940, he writes, "many parents had three major avenues for maintaining, improving, or regaining their financial status. They could move off the farm for fathers to obtain comparatively well-paid jobs, they could have fewer children to allow available income to be spread less thinly, or they could increase their education." But Hernandez points out that by 1940, most adults no longer lived on farms, most families were raising only one or two children, and educational opportunities for men over the age of 25 were limited; "The historical avenues to improving the relative economic status of their families had already closed for a large majority of parents." A fourth avenue for improving families' financial stability opened up between 1940 and 1960, when more jobs for women became available after World War II, and historic increases in school enrollment left more mothers available for daytime employment. The timing for the arrival of feminism's second wave was auspicious for a society in which the existing pathways for families' economic security were nearly exhausted and, for the first time in the nation's history, the majority of American mothers had twelve or more years of education. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of American children with employed mothers grew from 16 to 70 percent. In the early 1980s, women's wages -- although still substantially lower than men's -- began to climb, and by the year 2000, married, employed mothers were working an average of 33 hours a week.

But Betty Friedan's call for an overhaul of the new cult of domesticity was not merely -- or even primarily -- about increasing women's opportunities for breadwinning. (As Friedan noted in the concluding chapter of The Feminine Mystique, employed wives she interviewed reported that "the money they earned often made life easier for the whole family, but none of them pretended this was the only reason they worked, or the main thing they got out of it.") By deconstructing the myth of the "happy housewife heroine," Friedan's ambition was to awaken educated, middle-class women to their potential for self-actualization through a commitment to work outside the home.

reinventing feminism

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