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What would Betty Freidan do?
When I was younger, my mom refused to let me watch two Disney movies: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I asked her years later about what I thought was a strange prejudice against the delightful animated fairytales, and she explained that she didn’t want me growing up absorbing stories of women being saved by a white knight.
Don’t get me wrong, I did watch those movies when I was little, just at friends’ houses, keeping it a secret from my mom. I had a sense then that she disapproved of the movies, but little idea as to why.
I understand better now. It was the same reason why my Barbie doll collection was so much smaller than my peers’, why she never bought me an Easy Bake Oven, and why most of the books I read centered around strong female protagonists. My mother was raising me to be a feminist and I hardly realized it.
Being a feminist now, when I’m 22 years old and on the brink of real-world decisions, is a lot more complex than when I ran around to the Annie Oakley-inspired mantra, “anything you can do, I can do better.” It’s not just that I have a more nuanced view of the world than I did as a preschooler. It’s also that the term “feminism” is more complicated now. Some call the 2000s the beginning of a “post-feminist” era, others say we’re in the “third wave.” Either way you spin it, feminism now comes down to the freedom of personal choice. Whether or not that choice comes with a social stigma, however, is a persistent problem modern feminism still hasn’t fully addressed.
A beneficiary of Title IX, my mom knew feminism as an outgrowth of Betty Freidan, whose success was manifested in the legal accomplishments of the 1960s and 1970s, otherwise called feminism’s “second wave” (the first being the women’s suffrage movement back in the first few decades of the century). But now the movement is in murkier waters. Historically, feminism ebbs and flows in the United States; once women’s right to vote was ratified in 1920, there was little action until 1963, when Friedan published the Feminine Mystique and Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, setting off two decades of legal victories for American women.
However successful feminists may have been in legal battles, they’ve paid for it in less tangible ways. The 19th Amendment gave us the right to vote, but the relative complacency that followed led to the 1950s housewife. Sure, there was Rosie the Riveter, that icon of female strength during World War II, but she existed solely because of the workforce vacuum created by the draft. When the men returned home, the women were more than happy to do the same.
Except they weren’t, as Friedan pointed out, and now women make up 47 percent of America’s workforce, according to a report released by the Pew Research Center last month. We’re also outpacing males as college graduates 53.5 to 46.5 percent. In 2007, 22 percent of married women had higher incomes than their husbands, compared to just four percent in 1970.
This sounds pretty good—and compared to 1970, it is—with gains for women in pretty much every category. Granted, the marriage rate has declined, but I wouldn’t necessarily call that a problem—more earning power equals more independence, which is a good thing, right?
This is where modern-day feminism gets complicated. Men were fine with giving us the vote, but 22 percent of women out-earning their husbands? Median household incomes may have risen, but what about the men? And what about their masculinity?
In most popular writing about women challenging gender structures, men and their presumed emasculation are at least an aspect, if not a central concern, of the story. If they’re not getting divorced, the career women profiled in newspaper trend stories who dare to have more successful careers than their husbands seem to be preoccupied with making sure their spouses can cope with their success, to the same extent that they are concerned with their own careers. When The New York Times Style section recently wrote about the rise in female college enrollment, the main take-away was that it’s now much harder for women to find boyfriends in college who won’t cheat on them, and women resort to sluttier behavior as a result.
While the feminist movement may have provided women with more access to the “man’s world,” it did little to overturn the pervasive patriarchy in our culture. We became really good at enacting laws to protect women. Granted, these laws are necessary to protect women’s rights within the dominant male order, but they can also create the illusion that feminism has made more progress than it actually has. Congress may have passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act over 30 years ago, for example, but it’s more than naïve to think that a woman’s potential or actual motherhood does not affect employment decisions. Creating a law to address a problem does not necessarily solve it, especially when the issue is as culturally entrenched as gender bias. We degrade their legacy by declaring this era “post-feminist,” as if gender inequality is a thing of the past.