February 24, 2013

Motherlode: Fifty years later, and rage over gender roles lives on


On The Times's Room for Debate online forum, Gail Collins led a discussion among five women about the 50th anniversary of "The Feminine Mystique." Betty Friedan, she said, wrote a cry of rage and frustration about feeling trapped in her role. She asked her debaters, "What's your cry of rage today?" and they answered, with passion.

Around here, on Motherlode, parents of both sexes are outraged by the ways our culture, society and policies box men and women into particular roles, or change the expectations regarding what one parent or another will do based on his or her sex. To judge from your comments over time, very few of us think schools should hold parent-teacher conferences only during the workday, or that fathers should be silenced during doctor appointments, or that employers should assume that a mother will make different work choices than a father based on her family's needs.

Much has changed since "The Feminine Mystique" was published in 1963. More so for women, by far, but the revolution the book embodies is freeing men as well. Which is why, as I watched the debate led by Collins, I found myself with what some would call a surprising wish for a feminist: I wanted to hear men's voices, too. The role of women in society and family isn't going to change unless the role of men shifts as well.

Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring," says at the beginning of the discussion, "It's so easy to blame your partner, or your employer, for not doing enough. We need to channel our rage at the political bureaucrats and business leaders who have refused to adjust their work policies and their parental leave policies to the fact that we no longer have a world where every employee has a wife at home to take care of the rest of life." It cannot only be women pointing out that not every family has a wife at home to take on the children daily at 3 p.m. sharp; men have to object to that assumption too.

Milly Silva, health care labor advocate, asks: "What happens with women today who don't have a choice about whether to go to work?

"... When we think about the situation with health care workers across the country, you oftentimes have women who walk out of their house every morning and they go to someone else's home, to provide home care, or go to provide care for a senior who has no other family to take care of him or her, and those very same women have to then think about, well, what's happening with my own children? How am I going to work two to three jobs in order to make ends meet?"

Again, women cannot be alone in decrying the millions of jobs that don't offer a living wage; one that allows every parent to financially support a family without having to work so many jobs that he or she can't also spend time raising them.

It's not a single discussion, of course. It's a thousand conversations on dozens of topics. In an epilogue to "The Feminine Mystique" written a decade after the book was published, Friedan wrote, "It isn't really possible to make a new pattern of life all by yourself." Friedan never believed she spoke only for women, or only for women who wanted to work outside the home.

She called for "a sex-role revolution for men and women which will restructure all our institutions: child-rearing, education, marriage, the family, the architecture of the home, the practice of medicine, work, politics, the economy, religion, psychological theory, human sexuality, morality and the very evolution of the race." She added, to all that, that "the economic part would never be complete unless a dollar value was somehow put on the work done by women in the home, at least in terms of social security, pensions, retirement pay. And housework and child-rearing will have to be more equally shared by husband, wife and society."

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