For educated, independent and aggressive women in their 20s, the 21st Century looks grim. Women with these qualities, a growing chorus says, have lost any sense of what society considers ladylike behavior. Never did we dream that to be successful and well-educated could be such a turn-off not only to men but to society as a whole.
This criticism, which was a virtual mantra at the Republican National Convention, has prompted some women to re-evaluate their life goals. Many second-guess their decision to postpone marriage and family to pursue a career. Others seek out therapists to help them uncover the hidden psychology behind their guilt for attempting to settle into the male-dominated work force. Sadly, I have women friends who have chosen to conceal their intelligence so men will socialize with them. Discussions of nail-polish color have replaced those about Kant.
In the ‘90s, young women are also watching many of their older counterparts, members of the “Old Guard” of feminism, leave the corporate world to take up an alternative career: homemaking. In 1985, a majority of women, according to most polls, preferred to work rather than stay home and raise a family. Today, these women are in the minority, according to the same surveys. Why?
Perhaps women are choosing the kitchen over the boardroom because they are tired of fighting the male-dominated work culture. If so, it is disheartening. For years, we have been preparing to join the feminist ranks, only to arrive at the battlefield in time to see the female troops call a retreat.
Do these women know something we don’t? Did they stop climbing the corporate ladder because they were tired of hitting their heads on the glass ceiling? Or did they reach that age when the rally cries to take over the CEO’s office were drowned out by the ticking of their biological clocks?
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, my mother and others like her marched themselves into a frenzy trying to persuade the American public, certainly the male-controlled government, that feminism was alive and would not die until dramatic changes were seen in the economic, political and social life of women. Unfortunately, Congress and the American voters were not convinced. But feminists had found their voice; they had learned that more could be achieved by fighting in numbers.
In my teens, I greatly admired women like Geraldine A. Ferraro, who, when chosen a Democratic vice-presidential candidate, put a touch of reality into my own political aspirations. When Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, I had visions of a new social force for women’s rights. But, alas, these history-making accomplishments were swept away by a backlash.
With the Reagan era in full swing, the American public seemed determined to place a tremendous guilt trip on aggressive, career-minded women. Everything from unhappy homes to dysfunctional families were blamed on American working women, the last remnants of the ‘60s feminists. Susan Faludi wrote a book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” about how feminism became socially unacceptable in the ‘80s.
Feminism and traditional female stereotypes recently re-emerged as issues in rumblings about Hillary Clinton’s putative role in her husband’s presidential campaign. Rumors about her being named to a Cabinet post, should her husband win, and her stated preference for venturing out into the working world rather than “staying home and baking cookies” gave Bill Clinton’s critics an opportunity to chastise him by accusing her of not “knowing her place.” These critics act as if a sacred mold would be shattered should Hillary Clinton replace Barbara Bush in the White House.
Hillary Clinton’s makeover for the Democratic National Convention was yet another symptom. The once outspoken, gregarious woman was replaced by a muzzled, Barbie doll-like figure. I could easily imagine her husband’s handlers ordering her to behave like a lady if she wanted her husband to win.
Unhappily for the younger female generation, the backlash against Hillary Clinton serves to reinforce our fear that after decades of fighting an uphill battle to reach the White House, the only entrance politically and socially acceptable is through the kitchen.
Still, regardless of how threatened people feel by women like Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, each generation of women must not lose sight of the underlying greatness of our combined actions, whether we choose to stay home or enter the corporate world. We must also remember that it is not so important which road we choose to travel but that the decision to choose is ours to make.