Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Repeating Our History

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I was saddened to hear about the death of NOW co-founder and Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan yesterday.

I didn't really know why I felt sad. I did not know her. She was 85 years old. By all accounts, she had lived a very full and remarkable life.

It was author Ann Douglas who (as always) hit the nail on the head in her blog post. I think I felt sad because I realized that after all of the hard work of feminism, which the tributes written to Friedan chronicled, we are still having some of the same, tired conversations. We continue to be told that we need to be Happy Housewives just as we were 50 years ago. Only now, we also are expected to be Yummy Mummies and pilates ourselves into a pair of $400, size 0 jeans six weeks post-partum.

Sometimes I feel that there has been significant progress. Corporations are becoming more aware of work/life balance issues. There are laws to prevent gender discrimination in the workplace. Divorce courts often recognize the work of mothering in the division of marital assets. The much loved Dove Girls commercials, for example, finally (finally!) show us what real women look like (of course, Unilever, the company which markets Dove, also markets Axe cologne which has some of the most sexist ads out there).

But then, there is also this retrograde 'come on girls, let's put on our aprons and lipgloss and tell the feminists that they got it all wrong' thing that is bubbling up in the mainstream media and threatens to tug at our heels like quicksand. There is this desire to revive the spectre of the Ugly Feminist and to dismiss all of the work that has been done on our behalf. Only now instead of hearing that feminists don't get dates, we are now being told that feminists are anti-mom. I have just finished penning the first draft of my review of Happy Housewives, where Shine accuses organizations such as NOW and feminists in general as being somehow anti-mother. She seems to forget that many feminists, including Friedan, were mothers themselves.

I just feel sad, I guess, that we, as women, as mothers, seem to be a little stuck. Thanks, in part, to Friedan, we know that we are being played. That we are being fed a line so that we will want to Clean Our Homes (and buy the cleaning products) and Be Thin (and buy the weight loss products) and Be Perfect Moms (and buy things to alleviate our guilt and our stress when we invariably fall short). And yet, somehow, we still seem tempted to buy into it -- at least, I know I do.

When I am reminded of the achievements of Friedan and her feminist sisters, I feel so grateful for all of that they did for our generation (to think that only 50 years ago women used to be fired when they grew old or got married or became pregnant.) But I guess I also feel a little worried. Worried that as feminists like Freidan die, we will lose sight of why they fought for what they fought for. I am worried that we will start to take feminist issues lightly. That we won't get mad when people infantilize us, patronize us, dismiss us as Yummies or Happy Housewives or Hot Moms, somehow try to convince us that feminism isn't feminine and tell us that Motherhood is just another arena where women can compete.

And that when our daughters reach our age, and have children of their own, they too will be stuck having the same tired, old conversations.


Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.


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I echo your sadness on Betty Friedan death and simply wanted to echo the sadness in the news of Wendy Wasserstein's death (she of the Heidi Chronicles). Her piece on conceiving her daughter at 48, while single, and having her prematurely was one of the best pieces on the need to be a mother and what it does to you I've ever read - you should all look it up in the New Yorker (someone must have bought the entire back catalogue on CD rom). Its a must read for all mothers. Yet another fearles, brave woman making her own path for herself and raising a child.
Betty Friedan's passing is sad and even more sad is how little attention or comment it attracted in the world at large outside of the usual Internet susupects. I spent this past weekend attending two child-related parties and an adults only brunch in my too-progressive-for-words neighborhood. I can promise all reading this that the vast majority of men and women present at these events would have self-identified as feminists if asked. Yet I was the only one to even mention Friedan's death. And no one wanted to discuss it. I guarantee a James Frey mention would have engendered more debate. I was angered but realized there was a reason for the lack of interest. Feminism is perceived as irrelevent to the lives of most women. It will remain that way until it once again challenges the prevailing economic structures that govern most of our lives. The problem with allowing women to "choose" to take time out of the workplace isn't "the choice" itself, it is that it is highly unlikely that the economic structure of this country will allow them to "choose" back in. That is just as true for the upper class women Lisa Belkin wrote about and most of us like to occasionally trash as for the mom trying to make ends meet after a divorce by taking a job at Wal-Mart. Taking time off -- or even working part-time -- for as little as a year sets many women back economically back for life. And as most women with children identify as mothers first and workers second, the feminist movement will will remain an irritating, hectoring side note to their lives until it begins to address this issue by devoting the majority of its resources to those who want to or need to put their families first. Women attacking women over their decisions just makes the powers that be happy since it allows them to maintain current conditions which are disadventageous to just about everyone but the shareholders. Either work outside the home for 50+ hours a week or not work at all was not the world I envisioned when I graduated from Betty Friedan's alma mater almost twenty years ago. Last, I'm sorry Betty Friedan (mother of three) was no longer well enough to take on Linda Hirshman on by the time her now infamous article appeared last fall. Maybe then the piece would have accomplished something other than the usual female cat-fight that result in no gain for anyone. Say what you will, Friedan always argued for the centrality of mothers and their concerns in the feminist movement -- and was often, frankly, reviled for it.
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