[This is the first of a two-part essay.]
When I was a boy, male and female roles were defined by gender. There was women’s work and men’s work. Each knew what was expected of them; they each knew their place in society. WWII changed all of that. When the men-folks went off to war, women-folk were supposed to maintain hearth and home. But Uncle Sam needed more able bodies to participate in the war effort, as it was called. Women took on many jobs previously held by men. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) developed; women became soldiers. Women were asked to participate in the nation’s shipyards. They learned trades previously only open to men. “Rosie the Riveter” became emblematic of the new breed of woman capable of building a battleship.
Once the war was over and the men returned from the battlefields, it was expected that women would relinquish their jobs and return to their rightful place in the home so Johnny could be the breadwinner he was destined to be. But women were not so quick to give up this hard earned freedom. Most did return home lured by beautiful low interest tract homes filled with electrical appliances to make her work easier. Television showed the ideal families of Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, etc., all depicting women made up so pretty to greet daddy with the Norman Rockwell children when he came home from work. This was the decade of the ‘50s where things were just peachy. Men once again knew their role in life as father, breadwinner, husband, provider, and decision maker. And women knew their role as wife, mother, homemaker, nurturer, cook, and PTA mom who was totally dependent upon her husband to provide for and protect her and the children.
But women had already tasted the freedom and power of being in the workforce and earning their own money. There was a sense of unrest permeating the female populace. Despite being “given” lovely homes, dishwashers, washing machines, etc., they were not content. Many thought that they should be happy and could not understand why they were not; after all, they had everything. Men were perplexed as well; what more did these women want?! Women began to think that something was wrong with them. They sought psychological help. They were given newly developed anti-anxiety and anti-depressive medication in an attempt to calm them down, make them more docile. Toward the end of the 1950s this internal unrest was palpable.
Betty Friedan writes:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover 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?”
For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire–no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents. They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights–the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity. All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.
This was the beginning of the Women’s Movement. Rosie the Riveter did not want to stay home. She wanted more. She wanted equality with men. She wanted the same rights and privileges as men. She did not want to be relegated to being a housewife and made to feel that it was her choice and that she should be content. Choice only exists when there is a viable alternative.
[For more information on this topic, please read the essay "Living Life Inside Out" on this Blog.
[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog. This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporay life. Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com. ]