Last night, I went to see Mike Daisey’s mea culpa monologue called #yesthisman. It was about feminism, his discomfort being a man in such a blatantly male-dominated society, the dilemmas of balancing his wife’s sense of self with his own self and his professional success – a concentration of angst common to men and women in his generation.
White, well-educated women of my generation were raised to be wives and mothers, then the rules changed on us midstream. Contraception became common and abortion became legal, freeing us from the mother role, if we wished. Most of us did not wish. Even when we went out to work, we relished our role as a parent, and depended on this role to give our lives meaning. When no-fault divorce laws and social change made divorce easier, Courts nevertheless complied with the roles we had been raised with, usually giving custody of the children to mothers. We worked all day and came home to be housekeepers at night. It was exhausting.
The women of Daisey’s generation were not raised only to be mothers. They gloried in becoming career women. But if there was any maternal leave from a job at all it was, and often still is, a measly and utterly unacceptable three months of unpaid leave. There was no publicly funded child care (as there is in almost every other developed nation), which meant that mothers either stayed home with their children or paid enormous amounts for child care. My son paid almost $2,000 a month for two children. In this atmosphere, men still filled most professional spaces because women did not want their children raised by a hired nanny, and sacrificed part of their professional life for their kids. In the law firm where I used to work, they carefully hired an equal number of women and men, but all the women but one left when they had children. You cannot be even a half-assed mother when you are away from the house 40-50 hours a week.
Today, I listened to an interview on Fresh Air featuring Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate, respectively, the director and star of the movie Obvious Child. The summary for the movie writes of the main character, “Donna is unapologetically herself, joking about topics as intimate as her sex life and as crude as her day-old underwear.” Robespierre and Slate seemed as unencumbered as Donna by the burdens which women of previous generations labored under. They are not waiting around for a marriage proposal, primping themselves and pretending to be well behaved. Women used to pretend to be well-behaved virgins to qualify for the marriage derby. All that is irrelevant today.
Women today have just one key choice. If they want children, they’ll be struggling, particularly in America’s child-unfriendly society. If they don’t want children, they can do whatever they want. They can talk about their day-old underwear or aspire to be President of the United States or the CEO of General Motors. They can live apart or live together, married or unmarried, with a woman or a man, with children or without. Even if there are children, men now have the socially acceptable option of staying home with them, leaving a certain number of women free to develop in their careers. For the first time in western history, women are constrained by neither physical, moral, religious, nor social expectations and can be whatever they want to be, even combat soldiers.
This is what free women look like, and we have never seen them before.