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Reviving the feminist mystique

page four

Stretching gender

When Plato envisioned a society where elite women would have equal standing among the ruling class, he started with the understanding that certain conditions must be met before men could serve as ideal rulers of his imaginary "best city." The first requirement was the abolition of private property, because men's self-interest in protecting their material assets would conflict with their ability to think and act for the common good. Once the right to own property was dispensed with, Plato reasoned the patriarchal family would have to go. As Susan Moller Okin explains in Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1979), Athenian culture in Plato's time was deeply misogynistic. The most valued affective bonds were between men, and marriage was primarily a legal and economic arrangement for the production of legitimate heirs and the transfer of wealth. Under the circumstances, the prospect of eliminating the conventional family was not inconceivable. Okin suggests that Plato, along with other men of his era and class, regarded women as a special category of property. By disposing of private property for the elites of his perfect society, Plato was forced to invent a new functional role for the wives and daughters of the aristocracy, and proposed that under ideal conditions, men and women could in all ways be peers. To meet the requirements of a virtuous life, members of Plato's ruling class would submit to strict regulation of their personal and reproductive conduct and raise children communally. 5

It's delightful to fantasize about what our lives might look like if Plato's notions about personal sacrifice and self-discipline as baseline requirements for true greatness and just authority were pressed upon today's ruling class. But it's also worth noting that centuries before other philosophers tackled the issue of women's rights, Plato sketched the outlines of a world where certain men and women would be equals because the boundaries between private and public good had been erased.

In American society, women's distance from the status of property has been integral to the expansion of their rights and liberties. Women's progress has also been predicated on the need for women to assume new social roles in response to the changing organization of social and economic systems. For example, as church and state became formally separated, women were allowed to have a more prominent place in the religious life of their communities and shed their former reputation as innately sinful creatures with little hope of salvation. In the post-revolutionary era, the conviction that mothers of the New Republic had a duty to instill the values of democracy in the next generation led to support for better education for girls, who were expected to provide this essential service to society. As industrialization spread, women provided an important supply of inexpensive labor to mills and factory owners -- and as the manufacture of goods moved into the marketplace, family systems that supported household production began to erode. When men had opportunities to enter the paid labor force, they relinquished direct supervision of household functions to women, who acquired a new source of authority as the keepers of the hearth and home. It was at this point that married women started gaining ground in terms of legal and individual rights, such as the right to their own wages and property, the right to custody of their children after divorce, and eventually, the right to vote.

Structural, functional and economic factors have shaped women's opportunities for advancement on both macro and micro levels (for example, when women's access to education improved and school administrators figured out they could hire two female school teachers for the price of one male teacher, teaching became a female-dominated and modestly-paid profession and remains so today). Women still had to fight for their rights. But we were able to forge ahead because the social systems that relegated women to the status of property and dependents were already weakened by economic, demographic and technological change. When women's desire for equality outstripped the evolution of social systems, progress stalled.

In the twentieth century, specific social and economic conditions set the stage for the second wave. As Donald J. Hernandez writes on the changing demographics of American families,

Before 1940, many parents had three major avenues for maintaining, improving or regaining their economic status. They could move off the farm for fathers to obtain comparatively well-paid jobs, they could have fewer children to allow available income to be spread less thinly, or they could increase their education. But by 1940, only 23 percent of Americans lived on farms, and 70 percent of parents had only one or two dependent children in the home. In addition, many adults found it difficult or impractical to pursue additional schooling after age 25. Thus, the historical avenues to improving the relative economic status of their families had already effectively closed for a large majority of parents age 25 and older. 6

The usual options for families who wanted to improve their economic position were disappearing just as new employment opportunities for women emerged. After World War II, Hernandez explains, more white-collar jobs were open to women, and women's historically high educational attainment prepared them for market work. Record high rates of school enrollment freed mothers from child care responsibilities for a significant portion of the standard workday. And since young adult women also had very high rates of marriage and early childbearing, most of the women available to take advantage of expanding employment opportunities were mothers. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of mothers in the paid work force surged from 10 to 26 percent, and continued to grow by at least 10 percentage points each decade for the next 40 years.

Long before the organized women's movement gained traction, the feminine mystique had outlived its usefulness. ("That," wrote Friedan in The Second Stage, "is why our early battles were won so easily, once we engaged our will.") The overriding success of second wave activists was improving the conditions and terms of women's employment by assuring that women were not excluded from the best jobs because of their sex, pressing for equal pay, expanding educational opportunities for women, and classifying sexual harassment in the workplace as a form of discrimination. Feminists wanted day care and paid leave and economic support for women in their caregiving roles, but at that point their desire for equality was moving faster than the society's need for women to stretch their gender roles. And as we know, women's progress slowed to a trickle, and in some instances started to roll back.

It's dangerous to overdo the structural analysis of social change, because ideology is what gives social transformation its particular meaning and helps us turn an uneven and disorienting process into a cohesive historical narrative: In 1960, middle-class women were bored and stifled in their homes with nothing to do all day but wax the floors. "Get to work!," said Betty Friedan. And they did. But I think it's important to consider that functional systems and ideology interact in complicated ways, and the effects are not always visible when the forces of change have already altered our lives and possibilities.

reviving the feminist mystique

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