by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 9. 2006
THANK YOU, BETTY FRIEDAN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- OK, so we had the vote.
But when I was growing up in the Fifties, the want ads in the papers were separated by gender - jobs for men, and then the secretarial, teaching and nursing jobs for women. A woman's status was defined by her relationship to a man - she was either a Miss or a Mrs. Women couldn't participate in sports. Women couldn't have credit.
Men were "mankind." They were human beings. Women were something else, something less.
And we women? We didn't know any better. We were happy about it. Happy little homemakers. Happy little consumers. Happy little saps, that's what we were.
Then a few tornadoes arrived on the scene, and everything changed. One was the birth control pill. Another was Betty Friedan and "The Feminine Mystique." My mother may have given me life, but Friedan, who died this past weekend on her birthday at 85, gave me my life. She gave me my chance to find out who I was. My chance to live on my own, to explore the world, to do creative work, to fail and succeed, to marry or not as I wanted, to have children or not as I could.
In the Fifties Friedan, who graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, was a free-lance writer for women's magazines. These magazines were all about finding and pleasing a man, child rearing, cooking, fashion and makeup.
That was odd, because in the Forties women had practically run the country while the men were off at war. Friedan told her friend, the author Barbara Seaman, that after the war, the U.S. government sent representatives around to the magazines with lists of acceptable stories - propaganda - designed to keep women out of the job market, at home, supporting their men by doing endless unpaid work and buying consumer goods.
Friedan "was determined to deprogram these women," Seaman said.
I came late to second wave feminism but I was in the avant garde - that's shows you how long it took for Friedan's ideas to filter into the culture. She wrote "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963, but I didn't get my hands on it until 1971.
I was hardly a traditional housewife. I was working as a costume designer in the Off-Off-Broadway theater. Yet it was telling that my marriage was some kind of a model to the Warholesque characters who populated my world - guys brought their boyfriends to our house for dinner to experience "normal."
My husband was a very good man, but I was unhappy. I didn't know why.
Then, in 1971, I was invited to join a consciousness-raising group. I believe it was the second one in New York City - that's how avant garde we were. (The first group went on to found Ms. Magazine.) We were a group of artists, choreographers, filmmakers and writers. Some of us were also the mistresses or wives of powerful and famous artists.
But no matter how hip we thought we were, consciousness raising was still consciousness raising and we needed it badly. For every "Aha!" moment I had in that group, I will be eternally and profoundly grateful. At the end of it I left my husband, left costume design and "became the man I wanted to marry." To my surprise, it turned out to be Jack Kerouac - who knew? - and I was on the road for the next 14 years. I never looked back. When the traveling finally stopped, I was a writer.
For me, marriage was never the main issue. My unhappiness started in childhood. My mother had wanted to dance professionally but resignedly accepted a life as a wife and mother instead. I was bright and creative, yet my brother was the family favorite merely because he had a penis. I grew up in a stew of inferiority, frustration and jealousy. It wasn't fair. Men could have real lives, but unless they were extremely brave and rebellious, women could only have husbands and their husbands' lives. And I wasn't raised to be brave and rebellious. That would come later, after I read Friedan's book.
Once I knew who I was, once I had developed confidence in what I could and could not do on my own, I was happy to marry again - to another good man. And my first husband remains a close and treasured friend. It wasn't any particular man's fault that I was unhappy. It wasn't even my own fault. It was the culture I was raised in. The fault, dear Brutus, is in our selves, not in our stars, that we are underlings.
"Betty recognized a longing in the women of her generation, a longing for something more - opportunity, recognition, fulfillment, success, a chance to live their own dreams beyond the narrow definition of 'womanhood' that had limited their lives," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "We were challenging every orthodoxy about what it meant to be a woman - about what it would mean to have control over your own body and your own life, and not be limited by other peoples' stereotypes."
Since I was raised to be a Fifties woman, my real life has always been a struggle against my upbringing. I look at the women of my generation as the bridge between femininity and feminism, the bridge over which younger women freely walk into lives of their own choosing - in the military, in marriage, in motherhood, in business, in medicine and the law, in the arts, with makeup or without it. And walk over it they do, even taking their hard-won freedoms for granted.
But the truth is that the powerful do not easily give up their power, and the door is now closing again. Equal pay for equal work - a no-brainer, you think? Never happened. A female president? Only on television. Abortion may soon become illegal once again. Birth control is under attack. Even Title IX is under attack. As it turns out, the door may have only opened a little way for a little while, and I was one of the lucky ones who slipped through.
Even if women do not fight to keep their freedoms, if the door slams shuts again, if we return to the dark ages again, I know in my heart that there will be a third wave, and then a fourth, until women all over the world are finally free and equal.
Jimmy Walker, the dapper mayor of New York City (1926-1932), was opposing censorship when he said, "No woman ever lost her virginity to a book." He meant that a book could not change a woman. But Betty Friedan's book, "The Feminine Mystique," changed the world.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at email@example.com.