Feminism: What does it mean – to you?

Betty Friedan’s passing on February 4, 2006 (on her birthday, eerily) provokes some thoughts… 

This word, ‘feminism’ has been thrust so many times at us – thrust at those in academia, those working in the professional work force, mothers, wives the whole gamut.  As a student at a women’s college in Massachusetts in the late 1980s/early 1990s, this was a topic which at best, was impossible not to discuss, debate or stumble into at some juncture during one’s college career.

As I evolved as an adult during my years in college, followed by becoming a member of the corporate and new media work force, and later as a wife and mother, I went through various phases of life which helped me define and refine my everchanging ‘role’ as a member of the female population, if there is one.  I look back and believe that my views and my personal definition of what feminism meant, really had not gravitated too much in any extreme direction.  I know that I wanted to do well in my studies so that I could acheive success down the road in a career which would be meaningful to me and also pay the bills – ‘financially independent’ and confident, as my parents hoped I would become.  I also knew that I always wanted to marry and have a family, not fully knowing at the time, how it would not only provide new perspectives towards my own life and more so, what challenges I would face while becoming that all encompassing ‘woman’.

Betty Friedan                           Betty Friedan at a rally in 1973. Tim Boxer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So what does feminism mean?  It means so much to so many, and while the word ‘feminism’ has suffered ridicule by the media, describing feminists as crazed, bra-burning women, out to demonize the male species, it means freedom, courage and empowerment to so many more. Feminism is personal and is oft in the eye of the beholder – it means one thing to someone in the West and another to someone in the East.  But to many in the 1960s, like Betty Friedan, it meant that women needed to be ‘more’ than just mothers and wives, essentially.  That they could persue other venues in life beyond the management of a home life.  While her views on the role of women and her focus on ‘housewives’ were both revolutionary and controversial (controversial some say, as her views perhaps were not all inclusive with regard to women from the middle or lower economic strata, and her not so flattering comments on women who did housework!), she did begin the discourse of what the role of women in society was and how women’s work was [not] valued. Her groundbreaking 1963 best seller, “The Feminine Mystique” laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement.  She was also the co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Gloria Steinem, years later, felt women had to break the ‘glass ceilings’ and demand equal opportunity and equal pay for their work at work.  I think this part of the movement for ‘feminism’ was sorely needed and was well received on the whole by aspiring women, giving them confidence to forge on and ‘be all that they could be’, while empowering them with the confidence for demand for equal pay and opportunities.  Steinem also was the founder of MS. Magazine

There were of course other famous ‘feminists’ who presented a more philosophical view of who and what women were.  Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, the French philosopher/writer known for her 1949 publication, “The Second Sex“, wrote about the oppression of women as the being the ‘other’ and that women were not born women, but became women. Hers is an existentialist questioning of ‘what is a women’ drawing from biology, psychology and history – predating the modern era and shift in womens’ roles in society which Friedan and Steinem tackled by shattering the images of the 1950s era women. 

Nonetheless, many women went on to define feminism as women having to be and attain exactly what their male counterparts acheive in order to be considered successful, accomplished and accepted in the professional world.  Then there are those who believe that a woman must choose to either be a career oriented individual (single or married with children) or a housewife and stay-at-home mother.  Both jobs, most will admit, are almost impossible to do well concurrently – unless, however, family support care or costly childcare is available.  There are of course millions who prove this notion wrong on a daily basis as they go to work everyday and raise their families.  However, the fact remains that there are costs on both sides depending on which occupation one ‘chooses’ to make the primary priority. 

While feminism converges on multiple definitions, being able to have a ‘choice’ and then executing that decision is paramount, in terms of what feminism means in the narrowest definition of the word.  It also goes beyond ‘feminism’ (ie: woman’s rights on an individual level), but rather a basic right of humanity. On the global level, it means so much more where women do not have ‘choices’ but must live under the pretenses of their cultural norms which to many who do not share those norms, may seem patriarchal and unfair towards the role of women. And of course so many socieities today are still testament to the second class roles women are delegated.

Going back to the more Western approach and view of feminism, while not all are privy to making choices, the fact remains that the recognition that women must have equality at both the work place and home, is one essential component of feminism and the movement. However, for myself and perhaps for many of my peers who may be privileged to be able to even have the opportunity to make a choice – be it choosing to work in a demanding career or staying at home to raise one’s children and manage a home, becomes a lifelong personal battle.  Socio-economic barriers of course, dictate who in our societies have those choices and who doesn’t.  Most women who have to work to make a dual income to keep the household afloat, probably don’t think of it in terms of making choices of this nature.  It is a neccessity that they work to earn a living.  Single mothers must work and rely on pricey daycare or otherwise less than par child care for less cost.  These are sacrifices and not choices.

The Recent Trend

With regards to a particular socio-economic demographic of college and graduate level educated women, the majority of women certainly have more choices at their disposal.  The women who are fortunate to have a spouse who can support the household and family on one income, are the ones in recent years who seem to be making more of the ‘choice’ about whether to go back to work after having children or staying home and raising them.  It does not seem, at least, a matter of being a ‘feminist’ and fulfilling the prophecy that if you have a degree in law or philosophy, you should be a lawyer or a professor.  The same degree can qualify you to be a ‘stay-at-home-mother’.  This trend would seem to deviate from at least Friedan’s general premises on women’s roles.

So why are so many MA’s, PhD’s, MBA’s and JD’s chosing to stay home to raise their families today?  Is it just about being able to afford it now, since high earning spouses are making enough to maintain it all?  Are women just thinking it is easier to stay home?  Or is it really something about values?  It seems to have become an acceptable norm for highly educated women, who worked a good 4, 8 or 10 years after college, to opt to stay at home and be their child’s primary caregiver.  If a family can afford to do this, I personally feel it can only contribute to a young child’s development positively.  It can certainly contribute to positive behavior development, self esteem and set a close bond and anchor in a child’s life. I used to believe that going back to work would be easy enough, if I could afford the proper ‘child development care center’ and then provide undivided care and nurturing during the hours I did get to spend with my children.  Even if I did work, I would most likely end up depositing the bulk of my paychecks in the day care or nanny’s accounts… 

Another reason why many parents/mothers are staying home to raise their children is based on the social values they are able to impart if they provide the full time care to their children.  Many argue that being able to ‘shadow’ one’s children through the early years (at least the first 5) may also help prevent social and emotional problems which may develop during adolescence and during their often unsupervised teen years.  Children are maturing biologically and emotionally much faster in today’s world, leaving them vulnerable at a much earlier and impressionable age to the rawness of our ‘new’ world at large today.  The media, internet, Hollywood, and even many parents themselves – are playing an increasingly more significant role in pushing children to grow up faster, become more independent and having to do less parenting.  Part of that is a result of the faster paced life, multiple jobs parents hold (and want to hold for personal acheivement reasons), and that the children too, want to be more than just children themselves.

So, it is interesting to me, to think how ‘feminism’ impacts all these outcomes and how chosing (or not) to work outside the home or raising one’s family is determined by those choices a woman makes or has to make depending on her circumstances.  I guess for me, femism really means being able to be what your potential allows you to be without barriers of entry to those potentials – where you as a human choose to be a contributing member of society. Be that whichever way works best for each individual. 

There is plenty more that can be discussed on this particular topic as is evident. For another post, then.


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