What Happened to the Gains of Feminism in the last 30 years?

Do you want to live a cliché, or do you want to live your life?

What Happened to the Gains of Feminism in the last 30 years?

by Mary T. O’Sullivan

Feminist author, Marilyn French, could not foresee how today’s conveniences make life less stressed. But do we use these aids to get help with our daily life? What has happened to feminism in the last 30 years?

It seems that along with female liberation, a kind of new repression was born. That repression includes living up to a cliché version of ourselves – beautiful, smart, capable, and brilliant in every area of our lives. We strove to be perfect mothers, sisters and wives, as well as to succeed in the workplace and indeed skyrocket our careers, but along the way, we began to notice something was missing. What was that? We had a perfect herb garden, a perfect kitchen, a great husband and really cute kids. So, what more did we want?

Suddenly, we felt that same ennui that Marilyn French writes about in her 1977 novel, The Women’s Room, where the tedium of being a suburban 50s wife, complete with index cards to keep track of when her heroine last washed the crystal in the china closet, caused a cosmic shift in her life and her character’s, and became one of the handbooks of the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, that feeling of discontent has begun to creep back and take hold on the women of today, like ivy that looks so pretty on the outside walls of our homes, but then becomes destructive as it invades the home’s inner structure.

How this happened is reflected in the stories of professional, successful, women who seek out answers to their dilemmas. They feel they should be happy according to societal norms about feminism and being a modern woman, and yet they are stressed, faces pinched, perfectly plucked brows heavily creased, bodies held tightly, as if they were clinging to themselves for safety. These women are experiencing physical pain, have unexplained high blood pressure and can’t seem to get any good sleep. They look for direction everywhere: women’s conferences, private coaching, therapy, Lexapro, Ambien, Zoloft, Lorazepam, Clonazepam, but no answers seem apparent; they still feel inadequate and frazzled. Yet, every woman is talking about the same thing; I need to make a change, but I don’t know what I should do.

If we look back at The Women’s Room, the main character does indeed make some big changes in her life; after all, it is a feminist novel; but although she sees the handwriting on the wall for years, it takes the realization that her husband has had an affair and then the reality that he divorces her, before she is forced to face the truth and figure out her next steps. And this is the crux of the matter. Many women who are seeking answers resist seeing facts until a major crisis hits. Whether it’s divorce, job loss, serious illness, death of a close family member or friend, or disability, women tend to hold back on taking control of their lives until they realize that suddenly their lives are out of control.

So where did the idea of women being perfect come from? Where is it written that women will have beauty, perfect households and stellar careers? Clearly, the messages of early feminism beamed career success. As far as appearances, women entered the workplace looking very conservative in hair, clothes, and jewelry. Today’s professional women may have short, tight skirts, flowing hair and exposed cleavages; liberating, right? Or, after the kids come along; clothes become more casual, slacks, loose tops, and short hair. Easy and comfortable.

But, whether tightly clad in “sexy” work attire or showing up on the job as a harried Mom, the element of perfection still inches its way in. We hold ourselves to those high standards we absorbed from our culture, cliché of womanhood; the Donna Reed image, only now, we grab our briefcase along with the baby bag, and rush out the door. So where is women’s liberation in all of this? Good question.

I recently asked a woman to walk me through her day. She said she started off by getting her kids ready for school, and then she began to do her work. Her work day lasted about 10-12 hours. In that time, she expected herself to prepare a nice, family dinner, as well as complete work reports without help, and study for a certification test. When I asked what she thought would be different for her if she changed something in her life, her answer was tentative; she “probably” could get some help. Why are we so afraid to ask for assistance? Is getting help considered weakness?

So, ladies, let us think about what help we can leverage in our lives now; conveniences we are privy to today that were not always available in the distant early feminist past? Microwaves, slow cookers, electric pressure cookers, delivery pizza, Success Rice, whole wheat instant couscous, Peapod Grocery Delivery, fresh cut up vegetables and meats from the grocery store; could these be the solutions to the “nice family dinner” question? And if you are a professional woman with a heavy work schedule, have you asked your husband to provide help with the morning routines? (A very feminist request.) If hubby is not available, other help could be sought. Websites abound with people looking to pick up a few extra dollars to assist you in those hectic mornings. (Using the web is a convenience Marilyn French and her contemporaries did not have access to.)

What is the solution? You hold the answers in yourself. Do you want to live a cliché, or do you want to live your life? Only you can make the changes you want. The answer is not in the women’s conferences, the yoga class, the mediation session, therapy or medication. The answer is wherever you want it to be. Find your answer, and you will find the end of the feminism cliché. Does this sound familiar? If so, contact Mary for a one-hour complimentary exploratory conversation about making changes that make sense for you.

Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

Corporate Coach and HR Consultant