When I’m drinking a glass of wine at home on a Friday night, I sometimes like to read old anti-feminist texts from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. While I don’t consider myself a “feminist,” I do get a kick out of reading some pretty amazing — and frightening — old passages about “the woman’s role” in the family and in society. I can’t believe the ideas were contemporary for my Granny, and even for my mom.
Here’s a gem: one well-known book in its day, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, published in 1947, “attempted to explore the causes of…women’s confusion and despair…which [the authors] identified as women’s rejection of their essentially domestic role, and their desire to compete with man in the public arenas of business and politics.” Also, the book “denounced feminists for being aggressive, maladjusted and unable to accept women’s fundamental role as wife and mother.” Yikes! Maybe the authors should have joined in a glass of wine to take the edge off.
One of my particular favorites, The Fascinating Womanhood — which I discovered in 8th grade and read cover to cover — was published in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. However, The Fascinating Womanhood couldn’t have had a more divergent view of what it meant to be a woman. My enduring memory of this book is its recommendation that a woman adopt certain personality traits in order to keep her man interested and happy. She should strive to be cute and childlike and express admiration for him, similar to a literary protagonist named Dora; but at other times she should embody the mature, angelic nature of another character named Agnes. Basically, the book instructs women to transform themselves into fictional representations — and not even of themselves, but of these “ideal” women.
What hogwash! (Unfortunately, no one told me that it was hogwash when I was 13 years old and seeking out tips on how to attract the opposite sex. Let’s just say that time and life disabused me of whatever notions I took away from this book, which remains in print today and claims to have sold over two million copies.)
I find it amusing to read passages from these old books — until I remember that real women lived these lives not so long ago, trapped unhappily in a limited world with very few choices for personal fulfillment.
It’s incredible to juxtapose these passages with those from The Feminine Mystique. Tonight, re-reading Anna Quindlen’s introduction of the book, I paused when I came to: “Friedan described a generation of educated housewives maniacally arranging the silverware and dressing to welcome their husbands home from work.”
Now, I have never maniacally arranged silverware in my life. And I definitely do not dress up to welcome my husband home from work, a point which couldn’t have been clearer on Friday evening.
After working my part-time day (9-2), then picking up the girls and managing our afternoon/evening at home, I was eagerly awaiting G’s return home from work. Fridays are typically the toughest day of the week, as N has hit her stress-tolerance level and she’s tired to boot. This particular Friday night was worse than usual — defiance, talking back, and a near-hysterical tantrum to top it all off. (Another blog post for another night!!)
So by the time G walked through the door, he barely had time to take off his coat or say hello before I was agitatedly asking him (in a very un-Dora and un-Agnes-like way), “Can you put S to bed?”
Let’s just say that the reaction from Dad wasn’t very “Leave It to Beaver.” He didn’t respond well to my less-than-effusive greeting, but he did take S upstairs to bed.
Later we agreed that we’re both tense at the end of the day, and especially at the end of the week. Our brains are fried and our reactions are not exactly calculated for the other person’s comfort. Our interactions are real and honest. At the end of the conversation, we agreed to cut each other some slack at that moment in the day, not expect any grand gestures and just allow the other person to be tired and cranky, if that’s how they feel.
Tonight when I re-read all these texts from previous generations, I was so very glad that my husband and I have the open, honest and equitable relationship that we do, as do many couples of our generation. It doesn’t mean that we never have marital problems or that we always agree — but at least we can talk to each other in a way that leaves us both feeling like the other person heard what we were saying, and that we have each other’s mutual respect.
And maybe that’s a big part of what the whole feminist thing was about.
Good job, ladies.