Monday, May 14, 2007

Friedan to Obama: Lives and Labels

On the 50th anniversary of what started the Women’s Movement, this question appears in today’s Washington Post:

“Are Americans threatened by working wives? Reassured by traditional ones?”

That’s in a column about Michelle Obama by Leslie Morgan Steiner, in which she observes “it stuns me that Ms. Obama's decision to quit her job is front page, national news. The spotlight shined on the work status of first ladies--actual and potential--seems to mirror Americans' obsession with working and stay-at-home motherhood.”

If I am less shocked, it goes back to my involvement in that debate for half a century.

In early 1957, at Redbook, a free-lance writer named Betty Friedan suggested an idea: At her fifteenth Smith College reunion, she would pass out a questionnaire asking classmates how they felt about their lives. I assigned her to do an article about it.

That questionnaire became the Holy Writ of the Women’s Movement, prompting Betty to write ”The Feminine Mystique.” In the following decades, as the last man to edit a mass magazine for women (and often called a “dinosaur”), I worked with Betty and Gloria Steinem as contributing editors and saw the curious ambivalence about women’s changing roles in our society.

The transition from the traditional pre-WWII housewife-mother to today’s independent multi-tasking woman has been remarkable, but it has been accompanied by an odd rhetorical reluctance.

In surveys and studies, Americans of both sexes embrace the realities but resist the labels of feminism and the women’s movement. It’s as if there is some security in clinging to classifications of the past while living out a present that offers so many more choices, particularly to the well-educated.

That may be behind what makes Michelle Obama’s change “newsworthy.” It’s perfectly natural for her to take time out from her career to help her husband seek the most important job in the world. If the situation were reversed, he would do the same for her, but it wouldn’t make headlines.

The persistence of that curious phrase “First Lady” reflects such backwardness. The truth is, if Barack Obama is elected, Michelle Obama will be the President’s wife, just as, if Hillary Clinton is, Bill Clinton would be the President’s husband.

Both spouses would not lose their other identities, but Ms. Obama would have to fight harder to keep hers.

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