How does the name Gloria Steinem hit you? Apparently my early feminism was a big hit with my then very young son, so much so that recently he attended a lecture by Ms. Steinem at the University of Idaho. While there, he met her, had his photo taken, and got her autograph. I was so jealous, yet overjoyed that he felt all that was important.
It is impossible to measure the affect she has had on our perception of women and on our culture. My memory goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she emerged as the new feminist voice. At that time, I was at home raising two young children, making sure they had nutritious meals, a clean house, and were forming good clean habits. Isn’t that what a mother should do? Suddenly, everything we thought we knew about being a woman was questioned. There is nothing wrong in being a mother and keeping your children and husband happy and well fed. But was there more I should know?
– My son, Peter, chatting with Gloria Steinem at the University of Idaho in October 2012.
Between these two pictures lie approximately 40 years. My son was a precocious five-year-old in 1972, the relative time frame of the first picture. It may have been taken at a different time, but the image represents her peak years, which is accurate enough for my purposes. Peter began to read on his own at age three, everything from cereal boxes to Time Magazine. As he grew older, he enjoyed discussing events of the day with his Dad and me. I can still picture him sitting with his feet hanging over the edge of the living room chair, chatting with his Dad. I am sure he was aware at his own level of the feminist movement, although the full ramifications would not hit him until much later. To see him talking to Ms. Steinem as an adult was quite thrilling to me, coming full circle, and inspired me to write an essay on the subject of feminism and women’s liberation as I saw it from the inside. I will say parenthetically that Peter’s wife is a sociologist and no doubt urged they attend this particular lecture. (That is she at the left edge of the photo.) He sent me the autograph as a loving gesture and keepsake.
Also between those pictures lie the years of growing impact of the new feminist movement. Not being a sociologist, I am looking at this phenomenon from the inside, a viewpoint of a young wife and mother, making a comfortable and nurturing home for my family, who is being told that is not enough. After World War Two, many women left their war jobs in the plants and shipyards, to allow the returning men to fill the workforce again. With a burgeoning post-war economy, wives had updated homes with new refrigerators and vacuum cleaners to make them feel their work was valued. In fact, women still had to answer to their husbands for everything they did, from asking for money to run the household, to “borrowing” the family car for their errands. These women earned no money, owned no property, and could not establish credit in their own names. I remember trying to get an apartment store credit card in my name and was refused. The only way I could get the card was to use my husband’s name outright or as “Mrs. John . . .”, not my own name of Joyce. I was a non-entity and existed only as someone’s wife. For a long time, I accepted this. I shouldn’t have, as I graduated with honors, had earned an associates degree as a medical assistant, and had worked at that profession for two years before I married. Suddenly, I was a “housewife” with no identity of my own. The name on the mailbox was my husband’s, as was the name on our checking account and credit cards.
The feminist movement gave me permission to change that, but the rules of change were unclear and confusing. I enjoyed being with my children and expressed my creativity in learning to cook, sewing clothing for myself and my daughter, and learning how to paint and do crafts. But even that wore thin after a while, especially when being told that I could “have it all.” That is to say, I could earn money, have a family, and have my own credit card. That was not as easy as it sounds. I did temporarily go back to work at part-time jobs, but these jobs were not career moves. “Career” was not a word I understood. I did not have my own car for the first seven years of my marriage. One day while I had the family car, I stopped at an auto dealership, found a car I liked, and then went home and told my husband he should buy it for me. He did, and I wondered why I had not done that a long time ago (he always said we could not afford a second car). My daughter recently told me that the reason I gave her for not taking her to primary school was that we did not have a second car for me to take her. How guilty I suddenly felt that I had not confronted my husband with this fact at the time and given my daughter something she was entitled to.
While I was engaged to be married, I had to go through a “wife interview” to make sure, I suppose, that I would be a suitable corporate wife. It happened at a gathering of John’s peers, and I was unaware at the time that the conversation I was having with his boss was characterized as such. Oh, how embarrassed and infuriated I was when I found out that is what happened in that very large insurance company. Not only was I expected to be a perfect wife, but a perfect corporate wife as well, whatever that meant.
When I finally looked at all of this, I realized I was not being regarded as a grownup person, but someone existing somewhere between a child and a full fledged adult. This attitude was compounded by the fact that I had married a man 14 years my senior, almost another generation older who grew up with the old standards. He saw nothing wrong with the way we lived, even as I tried to explain it to him. I expect that my children could see the stress this placed on me.
Recently I asked a friend, who happens to be the same age as my son, if she knew the name of Gloria Steinem, and if she understood where the term “Ms.” came from. She said no to both. I explained that the feminist movement made us understand that whereas men did not have to state their marital status when identifying themselves, women had to preface their names with either Miss or Mrs. It was somehow important to our culture that we identify our marital status. That is the reason for the term Ms., that gives one a required title without identifying our marital status. That was Gloria Steinem’s idea. There was even a Ms Magazine. The term caught on pretty quickly, even though many did not understand its meaning.
Below is a Feminist picture of 100 years ago. We’ve come a long way, baby.
As I tell you these facts of life, I acknowledge there were many women in the workforce, professionals who had degrees in nursing and teaching, and others without degrees who worked because they needed or wanted to, and there were many women who were content to be at home. We came in a variety of needs and wants, as we do today. But prior to 1960, life was pretty much laid out for us with not many options, certainly not as many as men had. And there were many men and women who derided the ‘LIBBERS” – a derisive term for Women’s Liberation – as being somehow odd, selfish, or trying to get things one shouldn’t have. That was an added burden that I personally did not appreciate.
All of this happened over the past 40 plus years, and a whole new generation of women have since grown up and accepted the changes and the benefits that were accomplished during these decades. There are still those who would say that we have not come far enough. Women still earn 80 cents on the dollar that men earn doing the same thing, and women still bump against the “glass ceiling” in an attempt to advance their careers. However, I see women elected to high office, and who are lawyers, doctors, social workers, construction workers, electricians, and nearly every other profession. Women in government has been the single most obvious elevation of women and perhaps the most important. It is here that changes can be effected. This has sometimes come at a high price of day care, parental leave, and certainly changes in a family’s insurance needs and financial planning. Those in law and in legislative positions can effect change for the better, as we all can by our awareness and involvement in all aspects of our lives and culture.
As for my son, he is a liberal thinker, who respects women and everyone else for that matter. He married a woman who is now in graduate school earning her Ph.D. and who will write and teach, and hopefully help to effect the changes she sees necessary. Peter has been a stay-at-home Dad, cooking, caring for three sons and getting them off to school, earning his BS degree, writing, and working in the food service business. They work at the family business together, have family meetings to include the boys, who are two teenagers and a pre-teen. They are a modern family. My daughter would characterize herself as being very traditional. She has a BFA in Theater, worked as a designer and sales person, and now home schools their teenager and pre-teen. She loves her life, and they are a modern family as well. I’m proud of raising these two. They represent the best of myself and their father, and of the world they live in. It is certainly a different world than I knew, and I’m glad for it. Thanks to Gloria Steinem and others who worked tirelessly to change family dynamics and especially the lives of women.