Thursday, February 04, 2010

How I found Betty

Today is Betty Friedan's birthday.

My undergraduate thesis was on pre-feminism in mid-20th century children’s literature. Doing research for it back in college – before then, I had only sketchy knowledge of the Second Wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s – was the first time I’d ever come across The Feminine Mystique. It’s a weirdly powerful book, honest and thoughtful without being annoyingly preachy or even all that angry.

I’m a product of the “you can be anything you want to be” generation, and I never gave much thought to feminism growing up. Here in the South, mostly the only self-described feminists you see (outside of a university setting) are…well, actually, you wouldn’t really see any. Before Betty Friedan, I thought of feminists as unattractive harpy creatures who needed to quit yelling at people and discover the joys of mascara. My 18-year-old self arrogantly figured maybe feminists had a job to do in the 1960s, but they’d triumphed, hooray, and I could darn well grow up to be anything a man could be.

Maybe it was a generational thing, or maybe a regional thing. Southern women - for better or worse – have their own peculiar brand of feminism. It’s hidden under a thick layer of hairspray and politeness, but it’s there. And it finds the protest-in-the-streets brand of feminists slightly unpleasant and/or tacky...bless their hearts. I could mostly sum up Southern Feminism by saying women have other ways to get what they want than loudly protesting until they get it.

For instance, if wearing makeup and listening politely while some boorish older man gives you “advice” gets you more respect in the workplace (hypothetically) or nets you a promotion, and if it doesn’t conflict with your sense of self worth, why wouldn’t you do it? If a few carefully-chosen words could accomplish the same goal as a one-woman crusade without alienating people, why not take the quieter path?

I’ll be the first to admit it’s a good thing the bra-burning protesters were doing their thing 40 years ago because Southern women as a whole wouldn’t have gotten that kind of widespread reform accomplished. Our brand of feminism is much more internal than revolutionary, focused on making our own lives and the lives of our loved ones better through very subtle means.

I’m not saying those are the best means in every situation, but, well, I’ve been watching them work for women I know my entire life.

But here in the South, even among girls of my generation, we’ve also got a lack of awareness about how some deeply-rooted traditions – getting married when you’re in your early 20s, having babies soon after – aren’t the best choices for every woman. Or even the majority of women. Reading Betty was my first step toward realizing what a complex, multi-layered idea feminism is, how it’s constantly shifting and still so very relevant to everyone – even those of us who enjoy wearing makeup and doing girly things.

To me, feminism means having the opportunity to achieve whatever you want and being able to do it with dignity and self-worth, whether it’s staying home with your kids or staying single or running a Fortune 500 company.

On a more personal level, I’ve been surprised how feminism has changed my view of the world, from the way I interact with people to the movies I watch to the characters I write. I’d call myself a feminist now – something I never thought I’d say when I was 18. You could call me a reluctant feminist, but that’s not really it. Maybe more like a quiet feminist. All women ought to be one sort of feminist or another, whether you’re the bra-burning type or the Southern type or the fight-for-better-maternity-leave type. Doesn’t matter which one – I think Betty would approve of them all.


Cerrissa said...

wow. love it.

Guinevere said...

Great post! I'm with you. I'm a definite feminist. I work in a career that is 95% male, and I love working -- I may never be a SAHM. But I hate how women denigrate the choices of other women in the name of either feminism or anti-feminism at times. Feminism is a great concept -- the opportunity for all individuals, male and female, to shed gender norms, be who they genuinely are and have the opportunity to pursue their desired objectives. Whether that's being a SAHP or a CEO.