Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Don't Iron While the Strike Is Hot"--Happy Birthday, Betty Friedan!

Today is the birthday of Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique. If I had to choose a feminist book which changed my life, it wouldn't be this one. I'd probably give that award to Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I say that her book didn't change my life because truth to tell, I've never read the whole thing. I'm familiar with her argument, so in many ways, I feel like I have, but I haven't. I have a used copy, which I bought for 80 cents from George's Book Exchange on Broad River Road in Columbia, South Carolina (I know this because of the stamp inside the book)--that store probably doesn't exist anymore, and given all the development near the Columbia Mall area, I'd guess that the strip mall probably doesn't exist anymore either.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?'"

I feel like I've read this book because the central thesis is so familiar: women don't find fulfillment being wives and mothers. And let me revisit my idea that this book isn't in the running as the most influential feminist book of my lifetime. As I think about my life and my ideas (and ideals), I see the deep influence of this book.

I arrived at college declaring, "Marriage is a trap." I was convinced that children were even more of a trap--at least you could leave a marriage. I was convinced that the traditional role of women held nothing but heartbreak, and I was determined to carve out an alternative.

So, you'd think that maybe I would have majored in something a little more lucrative than English and Sociology. But for many reasons (love of literature, conviction that the world would shortly end in a nuclear blast, hatred of accounting and finance), I didn't want to join the waves of my generation heading towards business school. My artist soul rebelled at that thought too.

This morning, as I reread the first few paragraphs of The Feminine Mystique, I see the lives of modern women (and probably many men) reflected. So many parents that I know are running themselves ragged by trying to balance the chores that must be done to maintain life with the activities of their children with their jobs that must be done to bring money into the household. I know many people, still, who stare into the darkness as they wonder, is this all? People with children and without, people in their dream jobs and in other arenas, people who work at home and those of us who rarely see our homes anymore because we work so many hours--we're all still dissatisfied with our quality of life.

I chose not to have children, but as I think about my work life, I can't help but see some family dynamics in the dynamics of the work day. There's this person who functions as the 3 year old, this group who functions as the dysfunctional in-laws, this bully who reminds me of an abusive spouse, and luckily, for me, the majority of my co-workers who remind me of my loving family members.

I used to think that Betty Friedan tapped into something unique to middle class women, but now I think what she describes is a variation of the classic idea of alienation (see, my Sociology education continues to serve me!). Our modern lives alienate many of us from the people that we want to be. Our lives are out of sync with our values, our work even more so. We work hard to achieve balance, but we fail to see that we're playing a rigged game.

I always have this idea on the brain, but lately, I've seen it popping up on various blogs and in various newspaper articles. I particularly enjoyed this post on Historiann's site, which declares that balance is a myth. Even people with what once would have seemed like dream jobs in academia are overworked and stressed.

Of course, they probably always were. If Marx noticed that workers were suffering alienation, then it's not a modern problem.

How do we solve it? If only I knew.

I think it's important in our increasingly frazzled lives to remember what it was we wanted our lives to be. I had a vision of living some kind of bohemian life in a big city, where I'd stay up all night writing and spend the day in rehearsing whatever drama event was next and I'd cook wonderful meals for intriguing people who would fill my mind with thrilling ideas. And where would I get the money for this life? My younger self just assumed that I'd earn a living wage with my art.

So, my current life as Interim Chair of my department doesn't quite match what my sixteen year old envisioned. But I spend a chunk of time each day working in some sort of creative arena. I'm lucky to have friends, both locally and far-flung, who fill my mind with thrilling ideas (and there's books and blogs and all sorts of Internet reading). I do live near big cities, and have family in other big cities, so when I want to muster up the energy, I can do all the cultural things I once envisioned doing.

I find myself sinking into swamps of despair during those weeks when work consumes all my free time and there's nothing left for poetry, for leisurely meals with friends, for cultural events. Happily, those periods haven't lasted long--perhaps because my Sociology training, along with my feminist training and activist training and spiritual training, warned me that most work will happily consume every scrap of time you offer it. Every day I try valiantly to save some part of my life for me, for my deepest yearnings, the ones which the world doesn't reward with money.

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