February 25, 2013

Professor examines social expectations of women

PSU prof. examines legacy of feminist movement, book

PLATTSBURGH — Betty Friedan articulated what was called “the problem that has no name” 50 years ago this month in “The Feminine Mystique.”

The writer/activist/feminist examined herself and peers — smart, educated women of a privileged class — who sacrificed their own aspirations for the American dream.

Friedan wrote:

“As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip cover 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?’”

Like Friedan, Dr. Susan Mody, a professor of gender and women studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, attended Smith College in Massachusetts.

When Friedan’s book came out in February 1963, Mody, a teen at the time, was unaware of her work. 

At Smith, Mody learned that social priorities prevailed in the lives of her peers. Access to an education at a prestigious women’s college was a step for Mody from her working-class background.

“But it wasn’t changing the underlying set of priorities for the identity that was already pre-shaped for me by society, by the kinds of expectations that other people bring to you,” she said.

“So, the question becomes how do we respond to those social expectations? Do we embrace them and learn to live that life, or do we rebel? Those are the two options that we had. You’re either obedient ... or you rebel.”

Five decades after the second wave of American feminism, society hasn’t moved that far from this dichotomous set of choices, in Mody’s estimation.

“As I interact with my students, as I hear about their lives and the challenges that face them, on the one hand, they have greater expectations for themselves in terms of opportunities to work. They may expect to marry or settle into a relationship a little later in life, but the relationships are still very powerfully present in their daily lives, in their consciousness, in their sets of priorities,” Mody said.

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