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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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