My Voice: 50 Years After The Feminine Mystique, Have Women’s Choices Changed?
I first read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in college. It was the early ’80s, and when I came home for winter break, I mentioned to my mother that I had found the book interesting. Her response: “That book changed my life.” I found out later that it had probably changed my life as well.
I was two when Friedan’s book was published in 1963. My mom—Mary Lou Judd Carpenter ’55—was at home with her small children while my father, an attorney, worked. I grew up in the world Friedan described: well-educated, competent women who married well-educated, professional men and found themselves at home with their children. I didn’t experience my mother as unfulfilled, but I do know the message my sister and I received was very clear: You are to have a career. You are to go the places I did not. You are to look at traditionally male endeavors as opportunities open to you.
My mom contends that she just wanted us to be aware that we had choices, but neither my sister nor I heard it that way. We heard that getting married and having children were part of life, but careers were most important. We were not to be dependent on a man, live for our children, or be the default keepers of home and hearth. We were to have careers, financial wherewithal, and independence. This didn’t seem inconsistent to us—we were growing up right along with the women’s movement—and both parents expected us to develop our intellectual and vocational potential. My father spoke admiringly of new women associates; my mother shared examples of young women pursuing graduate work or making it as young executives. My peers and I assumed we would have some sort of career, and many of my classmates had very clear professional aspirations. I marched out into the world with paisley bow-tie and sensible pumps, naively assuming that I would add the family piece along the way.
My reality included all the well-documented challenges faced by working women raising children and managing families. My friends and I lamented how we enjoyed feeling capable at work, but hated feeling short-changed at home. Many of us had been raised by stay-at-home moms, and we aspired to create family lives based on a labor model we didn’t have. Our employers, colleagues, partners, and we ourselves ad-libbed a variety of solutions. Part-time, flex-time, freelance, contract, job-share, even the “mommy track”—all offered only partial solutions and all came with trade-offs.
This “You have choices” deal didn’t feel like a deal at all. As I juggled work and family, my mother’s life sure looked OK to me: she ran a household, volunteered for causes she believed in, and spent a lot of time with interesting, competent women. She made significant contributions without ever stressing about a paycheck, a promotion, or a performance review. Mom’s carpools ran with precision; her dinners were nutritious and on time; sick children were simply brought along to committee meetings. I know being home with children is uniquely challenging, so I am not minimizing the stress, but I’d wonder whether my mother’s route might have actually gotten me closer to what I wanted: time with family, work I believed in, and the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the world.
This has really come home to me as I raise my daughter, Meredith. She has watched me do the working mother twostep, and once told a teacher that she wanted to be a “client” when she grew up—after all, that’s what Mommy talked about, so it must be important. At age seventeen, she has seen great variety in how families manage work and childcare, and she doesn’t have strong opinions about one way being preferable to another. But what my mother thought were opportunities for me look like purgatory to my daughter. She doesn’t see my career in corporate communications as something to aspire to, although she accepts that it’s important to me and necessary for our family. But what she values from her childhood are the rituals, events, and gatherings that were the first items cut from my to-do list when I ran out of time or energy. I know she would have liked to have a family life more like what I had growing up. Yet, as she prepares for her own future, she is eager to pursue her own passions, and doesn’t view the “home front” as gender-specific territory. She may be no better equipped than I was to understand what the trade-offs really feel like. What am I to tell her about “choices”?
Friedan’s book remains very important, and I don’t want to diminish the problems it portrayed and the challenges that still exist today. I am grateful for the choices available to me and the support I had from my mother and others. I know my daughter has many more options and opportunities because of the women who came before her. But the message I want to impart to her about the choices we have is more qualified and nuanced. I don’t feel the confident conviction that I heard from my own mother: pursue a career you love and the family life you want. My daughter’s world is very different than mine or my mother’s, but I wonder whether the ambivalence I sometimes feel will diminish with successive generations. We’ll have to wait another fifty years to know.
—By Cindy Carpenter ’83
This article appeared in the fall 2012 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
August 13, 2012