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.
“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.
The idea of rebellion is still risky and generates fears, she said.
“I see our young students still internalizing all the tensions that the dichotomy provokes in many of them ... It’s something we still have to talk a lot about because it’s how I think young women today still experience the kinds of choices that they have,” Mody said.
“At the same time, a lot of our students will articulate not wanting to have any of the stereotypical aspects of social identity put on them. They will articulate rejecting concepts of race, of gender, but that’s not how they live their lives. So the idea that our identities are somehow more plastic, more flexible, more able to move among sets of choices that we can really shape and create ourselves and be who we want to be, I think it’s still kind of a dream we have.”
Social constraints, economic constraints and the job market have an impact.
“Workloads have intensified for everyone. Unemployment is a factor, globalizing trends, widening gaps of all kinds.
”Getting back to Betty Friedan’s direct appeal to the woman who is asking that question ... ‘Is this all?’ Even in those lives of privilege, there is a sense of primacy to the given identity that is attached to one’s reproductive capacity,” Mody said.
”One could say one is serving a class need in that respect, ... you’re reproducing the class. You send your daughters to a college like Smith, so they will marry the young men from Yale or Harvard because in those days, of course, the colleges were still sex segregated. You have to meet the right kind of people to marry, but it didn’t change the fact of your primary function.”
The persistence of glass ceilings suggests maintenance of sets of hierarchical relationships.
“It’s somewhat depressing to think about it that way,” Mody said. “What I think mitigates against that feeling of depression is that we do also have young people — young women, young men — who have more designated spaces like having a gender-and-women studies program in the university.”
These programs did not exist when Mody was at Smith.
“So the growth of women’s studies, gender-and-women studies and gender-and-sexuality studies in university departments is one measure of the space that has been gained in order to talk about and think about these things,” she said.
During winter break, Mody met with colleagues at the University of Hyderabad. She was in flight to India during the gang rape of the 23-year-old woman, a physiotherapy intern, in New Delhi.
“When you look at the kinds of events that are still happening in society, it reminds you of how far we have to go in terms of actually accomplishing the conditions,” Mody said.
Friedan was on a personal journey, and her book received a lot of critique.
“She was talking to these women of privilege, and she was not looking at the conditions that constructed the privilege,” Mody said.
“So today, we are trying to look at the performance of gender as something that is constructed within that context but that also provides us with a realm in which to act and to become more and more conscious of how we choose to act within that realm,” Mody said.
“But ... not losing touch with all the aspects of that context that ... constrain our possibilities as well as, sometimes, provide them.”
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