Monday, February 06, 2006

Naming the Problem

In the late 1950s, Betty Friedan realized that millions of American women were suffocating in their lives as housewives. Women were expected to devote their full energy to making a home--cooking, cleaning, chauffering, entertaining, whatever was demanded. Female orgasm was supposed to occur primarily or only through intercourse; women who needed clitoral stimulation were "immature." Women could not get a credit card in their own names. They were regarded as freaks if they were unmarried. Many of the top universities did not admit women. Owning a home or a business without a man around to sign the mortgage or loan papers was difficult at best. Marriage and childrearing were supposed to the the be-all and end-all of female life, no matter that most housework is mindnumbingly tedious and that childrearing, especially in the early years, means spending many hours a day without having a conversation with another adult. One's whole life was devoted to other people's needs, and, worse, this was supposedly because it was in women's "natures" to want to do this, meaning that women were afraid to speak up for fear of seeming unnatural or mentally ill. Friedan found out, and reported, that millions of women had a voice within "that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'" She called it the problem that has no name, but, gradually, in the 43 years since her book was first published, a revolution has begun. It's a revolution that's not finished, by any means, and it's one that began centuries ago, depending on how you count these things, but Friedan started a whole new wave of it, simply by describing the problem, by naming it, by enabling other women and men to see their own lives in a new, more liberating, and more fulfilling way. Thanks, Betty.

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