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FEMINISM AND MY GRANDMOTHER
My grandmother is 85 years old, born in the mid-1930’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She entered into young adulthood in the 1950’s and soon became the typical American housewife after getting married and quickly starting a family before her mid-twenties.
Before getting married, my grandmother graduated high school and was named valedictorian of her class, which, by today’s standards, would’ve meant that she had a successful career ahead of her. But, in the 1950’s, that meant nothing. She didn’t attend a post-secondary institution and only briefly worked as a secretary until she got married and had children to look after.
Not only did my grandmother take care of her husband and four children, but she also took in her aging mother and brother who happened to be both autistic and blind, making it impossible for him to care for himself.
I’ve always had a great relationship with my grandmother, but I’ll admit that she can be quite cold and harsh at times. I’ll never forget my own mother telling me about how my grandmother never really told her kids that she loved them and just wasn’t a very affectionate mother.
As a twenty-four year old woman today, I consider myself a feminist (probably a rather radical one at that), but I have to confess that I hadn’t given much thought to what my grandmother went through as a woman until I started to read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (*a must-read for any feminist or woman, for that matter).
In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan tackles the struggles of women forced into the life of a housewife due to societal expectations. Friedan’s book not only became a voice for millions of women in America, but she set the stage for what would come to be known as “second-wave feminism” (first-wave being in the early 1900’s when woman demanded and won voting rights).
In the 1950’s, housewives around the United States were experiencing extreme depression and loneliness without any clarity from psychological experts. Most were happy with their families, but couldn’t shake this undeniable feeling of emptiness and lack of identity.
What Friedan discovered, and what we now know, is that woman had been boxed in by society and felt stifled, unable to express themselves or have any autonomy in their own lives. Woman were consistently identified in relation to their husbands or children, but never having an identity of their own.
Second-wave feminism arose to free women from the shackles of societal expectations and demanded equality in all sectors of life. This age of feminism gave way to a radical and exciting time when women were rebelling and challenging all feminine social norms. Typically, this age is what people think of them they think of feminism and feminist social transformation.
However, my grandmother was not involved in second-wave feminism. She didn’t burn her bras or attend consciousness raising groups for women. She didn’t go marching in the streets or go out looking for a career to fulfill her own personal desires. In fact, I’m not sure what my grandmother thought of the feminist movement, but she surely didn’t participate in it. How could she when she had a family of seven to look after?
In fact, part of me feels like my grandmother probably resented the feminists of the 60’s and 70’s with all of their over the top expression. But, I don’t think it was their radicalism that she resented, but, subconsciously, she knew that she was trapped by the same systematic oppression. She’s a traditional woman with very conservative views of the world and I’m unsure if she would’ve allowed herself to explore beyond those views.
I can’t speak for my grandmother and I’m unsure if we’ll ever be able to have an honest conversation about it, but it does make me sad to know that she never really had a choice on what her life would look like. She had all the potential in the world, but was held down by the expectation that all women were good for was getting married and having babies.
Women’s rights have surely come a long way, but we must not forget where we came from and where we still have to go. If you have a grandmother, look at her life, talk to her and ask her about her experiences. Think about the hardships that she went through and find gratitude in the progress that has been made. Allow it to inspire you to keep moving towards true equality for all and never forget those who have suffered for us to be able to live more full and authentic lives.
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Sarah, thank you so much for posting this. I just had a conversation with my husband about this topic a few days ago. We have a daughter, and I’m so thankful that she’s growing up in today’s society as opposed to the one our grandmothers grew up in. Working from home as a homemaker should be a family choice and not an expectation. Being a mother and taking care of a home is a demanding and often thankless job. It can be beautiful and fulfilling but also draining. I’m so thankful that my daughter is growing up in a world where she has choices and opportunity.
Thank you so much for your comment! I always appreciate when someone relates to my writing. Society really has come a long way, but surely we have a ways to go when it comes to true equality. I'm optimistic about the world that your daughter will help create :)
woman had been boxed in by society and felt stifled, unable to express themselves or have any autonomy in their own lives. Woman were consistently identified in relation to their husbands or children, but never having an identity of their own.
Things have definitely improved because we have more choices other than getting married and popping out children, but as a mother and a wife, I still find that I am identified in relation to my husband and children and very much judged by how presentable they look when I send them to school, how frequently I am able to volunteer at PTO functions, how clean my house is and how well I cook. Society expects me to be keeping up with all of these things AND make sure I am maintaining my figure by exercising, make sure my makeup and hair is flawless at all times while also spending time to make sure the majority of my body is smooth and hair-free. It's a lot to keep up with and then add a job to that and you can forget about ever having time to spend on hobbies or down time to figure out who you are as an individual. I think a contributing factor is that I married at 20 and had my daughter at 23, so I didn't really get to spend that time in early adulthood figuring out who I was as an individual. I don't regret my marriage and children at all, but I do strongly recommend waiting to marry until at least 30 if you want to have time to establish your own identity. Now that my daughter is more independent, I have been able to find more time to explore hobbies and write again, but it sure was a lot easier to find the time to do so before I became a wife and a mother. So just make sure you give yourself that time. Great piece! Keep pushing on that glass ceiling! We still have work to do!
Thank you so much for your comment. You're definitely right, women are still held to crazy standards that we have to continue to question and challenge everyday. I really appreciate you sharing your point of view on this topic, it's so important that we all continue sharing our stories!
Truly insightful and interesting article Sarah! Both of my grandmothers have similar stories so I can definitely relate on that level. They dedicated their whole lives only to their families and rarely to themselves. I wish they could've had the freedom women have today to proactively choose what they want to do with their lives. I appreciate you contributing to this cause. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Tomas, your comment is much appreciated :) It's nice to know that others out there are reflective and grateful for what those before us have struggled through, so that we can live more authentic lives.
I was in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and always felt that it was just the first part of a social revolution, the second part being the feminist movement. It has taken a while, but now it is fully here. Wonderful.
Thank you for being a part of such a pivotal moment in our counties history, that is truly inspiring. I appreciate your feedback :)
Sarah, how refreshing to read someone else’s prose who espouse the same ideology that in a way feels a little lost in today’s fast-paced, tech-smothered world of texts, emoji’s and lol’s and ttyl’s…My mother was a first generation feminist, her mother belonging to that generation who had it beaten over their heads that women were supposed to get an education (until a man came along), marry into the institutional belief that still holds women as the more submissive part of the pairing, and to raise a family putting any ambition or goals on hold to live some predetermined life that society pushed, if not forced, upon women. This article of yours is the first I’ve read, I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on so much more.