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On the Trail of Female Pioneers

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am a 66-year-old female theater producer who was active in the women’s movement in the late ‘60s.  My success has been directly influenced Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and others.  I know the “up” sides of the women’s movement.  Have there been any down sides?  Just curious. 

Answer: The timing of your question is perfect.

I recently attended a meeting of nine successful career women who are part of Project Renewment, a movement and forum for career and working women to address the challenges and opportunities confronting them as they face retirement.  Their meetings are based on the book “Project Renewment:  The First Retirement Model for Career Women” (Scribner, 2008), by Bernice Bratter and myself.

These women reflected on their education and work experiences in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time when women were encouraged to pursue one of three careers: teaching, nursing and, sometimes, social work.  Such careers were considered stable, meaning that if you needed to work during your married years, you were able to find employment.

Here are some of their reflections:

  • A retired speech therapist recalled the time she wanted to apply for an MBA program at a large Mid-western university. She was told, “Honey, why would you do that?  You just will get married and pregnant.  And don’t you think a man should have that job?”
  • “In the 1970s, I felt I had to emulate men in the workplace if I wanted to be respected or advance,” another women said. “I wore a dark suit, a white or blue blouse with a silk bow – the closest item to a necktie.  If women were to be taken seriously, they could not act or dress feminine.”
  • “Common advice was to stick to the facts and avoid expressing emotions, since showing any sign of feelings might be written off as ‘that time of the month.’”

Although all of the women indicated the women’s movement was critical to their success, they acknowledged there was a price to pay.

A retired business owner commented, “We believed we could have it all — a  successful career, a happy husband, two wonderful children whose  mother went on field trips and baked cookies for the class fundraiser, a dog and having time to volunteer. We didn’t know that was impossible. No one told us that.”

And they acknowledged a downside:

  • More nannies were raising children.  Although there is little, if any, evidence that suggests these children did not fare well, the women admitted that sometimes a mother was missing.
  • Mothers missed precious years of being there as their kids grew up.
  • One woman said the women’s movement emasculated men.  And today, with an increasing number of women becoming the major breadwinner, the earning roles are shifting. In 2009, 15.6 percent of working wives had a husband who was not working.
  • Guilt was a byproduct of knowing that you had the ability to do it all, but could not actually do it all.  Something always was left undone.

What has been the movement’s effect on today’s career women in their 40s who are wives and mothers? A group called Project Renewment:  The Next Generation discussed the subject.

These younger women continue to pursue their dreams.

  • “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.  I opened a business and never thought of myself as a “woman” launching a business.”
  • “At the age of 20, I found my way into a woman’s studies course at UC Santa Barbara and it changed my life.  I read Betty Friedan’s (The) Feminine Mystique and (The) Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and more.  I appreciate those women who were the “bra burners” of the 1960s.  Today, I am a successful real estate agent.”

Most of the younger women in the Next Generation group are following models of women who are now in their 60s and 70s — attempting to do it all.  However there is one major difference:  Their husbands take a larger role in hands-on parenting.

Thank you for your provocative question.  Any movement that dramatically transforms roles and possibilities has a potential downside.  Author Frederick Wilcox wrote, “Progress always involves risks. You cannot steal second base and keep your foot on first.”

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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