The reaction has been, well, explosive. Just as it was when Gloria Steinem — quoting educator Irina Dunn — declared that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
As I look back on what has happened in the past 50 years of the women’s movement, I am struck by how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Women have made enormous strides, largely due to the women who started these movements then. Much has changed in the workplace, and women are breaking barriers every day — though Sandberg argues they should be even further along. Where things still are murky is in the private lives of women. How do you manage having a career, having a marriage or a relationship and having children? That balancing act is still uppermost in the minds of most young and middle-aged women today, much more so than for their husbands or partners. Today, as then, the way you answer the question can pit you against other feminists.
At one point I found myself in the middle of this fight. When “The Feminine Mystique” was reissued in 1997, Betty Friedan wrote in the introduction: “in all the arguments about men not doing enough of the housework and child care, I’ve heard women recently admit that they don’t like it when men take over so much of it that the kid comes to Daddy first with her report card or cut finger. ‘I wouldn’t consider letting Ben take him to the doctor,’ my friend Sally said. ‘That’s my thing.’ ”
I’m that Sally. And that was and is my thing. Who would have predicted that?
I was a senior at Smith College when Friedan’s book came out. It changed my life. The mantra in our class was, “A ring by spring.” That was if you hadn’t already dropped out of school to get married.
The pressure to get married was huge. I didn’t dare tell people I didn’t want to. When Friedan’s book came out, it articulated all the doubts I had about becoming a housewife. My mother had wanted a career but married an Army officer and moved every year and a half, making it impossible for her to work. She was completely dependent on my father. “Always have some work you love and your own money” was the one thing she kept telling me.
Friedan, who became a close friend, started a discussion — some might call it a revolution — that has never ended. It ebbs and flows from year to year, occasionally erupting into a national debate, but the issue — what is and should be women’s role in society — never goes away.
Gloria Steinem, who was a friend as well, picked up the mantle from Friedan and started the Women’s Liberation Movement and Ms. Magazine. But her message was more strident — that fish-bicycle thing.