This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which revealed the mind-numbing ennui of the mid-20th-century American housewife, and a great deal of ink has been spilled describing how far we still have to go, baby.
Public policy and the corporate culture have not kept pace with, nor facilitated, the movement of enormous numbers of women — many highly educated — into the workplace, we are told.
Maternity leave is still unpaid. Child care is not universally available and child care workers are poorly compensated. Assumptions are still made about a woman’s career path once she has children. Sexual harassment and discrimination have gone underground, but both still flourish.
And most of the time, no matter who it is she thought she married, his meeting will always be more important than her meeting when the baby throws up.
Meanwhile, stay-at-home moms bristle in the company of mothers who work outside the home, while those working mothers wrestle feverishly with their dual identities.
A smaller world
The world has shrunk a great deal since 1963, and we are more aware of the suffering of women elsewhere in the world than ever before. Those women have found voices speaking for them in the U.S. State Department, where women have served as secretary of state for 12 of the last 16 years, most notably, Hillary Clinton.
It is those other women I think about when I think about “The Feminine Mystique” and the change it wrought in my life and the lives of so many of my contemporaries — and how good that life is.
That maternity leave in this country is not paid renders it somewhat useless. But that inconvenience pales next to the experiences of women who die in childbirth in developing countries or who have been infected with the HIV virus by their partners and are in danger of passing it on to their unborn children.
Poor, single mothers must still work multiple jobs in this country while leaving their children poorly supervised. But what of the women and children in countries ravaged by drought and famine and where water is as precious as oil?
While we worry over whether our educational system is driving girls out of math and science classrooms, daughters in another part of the world are still being circumcised — by their own mothers and grandmothers — and sold off into marriage by their fathers.
The question being asked this month is: Where is feminism going during the next 50 years?
Helping our sisters
I think we might consider putting aside our own grievances and focus on sisters in countries where rape is a weapon of war, where honor killings still take place, where girls have acid thrown on them for trying to go to school, and where family size is mandated so baby girls are abandoned.
And then there are all the smaller indignities: not being allowed to drive a car, pursue a degree or hold a job.
Since Betty Friedan identified “the problem that has no name,” the effort to improve the lot of women has produced changes no one in 1963 would have believed possible. But we still lag embarrassingly far behind other first world countries in institutional supports that would make combining work and family easier, especially since a shrinking economy makes dual income families almost a necessity.
Even so, the next wave of feminism must certainly sweep across Africa, Asia, Afghanistan and the Arab world.
Things are clearly still unequal in this country in hiring, in pay and in expectations. But as we make time to pay a debt of gratitude to the women who came before us, we should find ways — even small ways — to improve the lives of women outside our borders. Something as simple as demanding of a retail manager what his company’s sweatshop policies are.
We are all sisters, under the skin.
Susan Reimer is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun.