Several evenings ago my husband asked me how I feel about women's liberation these days. The question set me back a notch or two. Why would he ask such a thing, and why was I not rapping out a round retort before he could get out of the kitchen?
"I don't know," I said. "I'm still for the ERA, if that's what you mean." "Right," he said, but we both knew that wasn't what he meant.
In the first place, what are these days and what was women's liberation all about in the old days? The old days were the early '70s, when I was single, in graduate school, poor, independent, fervent, intellectual and feminist. These days I am married, working and mothering, affluent, and my life is entwined inextricably with my husband and my child, my colleagues, my students, my child's caregiver, doctors, neighbors, banks and so on.
Independent? I can't go down to High's without putting the clothes in the dryer and finding the baby's car strap and making sure the back door is locked and...
Nor do I have the intellectual life I had then. I read little, and that in a fragmented way. I don't seem to find time for the thoughtful discussions with friends that once were so vital. I don't seem to have good ideas; I am good at remembering what size people wear and how many minutes per pound and when the next check-up is. I am not fervent, I am tired and sometimes bored. Am I still a feminist?
It was clear in the old days that I was and much of my activity revolved around feminism. I joined a support group, learned to esteem and enjoy other women and solidified an ambition to get a Ph.D. I was open to new roles: I learned to tune my engine, I invited men to stay over, I organized a conference. I developed a belief that the traditional differences between men and women were stereotypes developed to serve a culture in which women were oppressed, a culture that was no longer desirable, if it ever had been. I chose a woman to direct my dissertation about feminist writers. When I married, I kept my name.
I am nostalgic for that life. But to be fair, it was lacking. I was lonelier then. I lived with several different roommates of both sexes. I prefer my husband. I didn't like working on cars.
But am I still a feminist? Certainly I am different now from what I would have been had there been no rebirth of feminism in the '70s. I can count a few direct influences: I am more confident and assertive. I like women better. I am more political. I teach for my women students sometimes and I use pronouns differently.
But in other ways I would have been appalled to see my life now. I never go to meetings. When I talk to other women, it is more often about children, health, food or schools than it is about books or politics. I share housework and child care with my husband about 98-2. And my political attention, such as it is -- reading the paper, giving money, voting, composing letters to the editor that remain unwritten -- is divided among a number of concerns, among which women's issues do not rank particularly high. Perhaps most shocking, I have let my career come to a virtual standstill while housework and child care take most of the hours. I chide myself as a notorious underachiever in work, in politics and in my community.
Feminism did not prepare me for marriage and childbirth. I had thought that my husband and I would go on through life together as we always had, somewhat different of course but always pals. Together we faced college exams, breaking and making relationships, white-water canoeing, first jobs, a drive across the country. I will never forget the evening I knew I was pregnant. There we lay, talking about it, and there was my tummy where it was all invisibly happening and there was his tummy the same as ever, and I finally realized -- what could I have been thinking? -- that we were Not Doing This Together.
After the initial shock I loved pregnancy. And I loved my baby. Loved is hardly the word for it; for a year or more I was possessed. I seemed to look on my women friends who had decided not to have children over a great gulf, across which I could hardly communicate. At the same time I was taken into a new community of mothers, where new issues are important.
I find myself concerned about a generation of children brought up outside the home, and determined to be home a great deal. I find myself looking at baby boys and baby girls and seeing differences. I remind myself that these are not carefully balanced observations, but I have come into a sense that masculinity and femininity are complex and deep-seated, not accidents of the physical surface. I want another child.
Along with children comes a great deal of baggage that I do not want: separateness from my husband, laundry, dirty dishes, doctors' offices, picking up toys, shopping, laundry, dirty dishes... books not read, essays not written, thoughts not thought and a general feeling of stupidity. No one ever wanted these things, and feminism was right when it said that men and women "should" share their lowly chores.
Ah, the gap between theory and practice! I gave birth, I nursed, so naturally I washed the diapers too. I did more chores, but I had the greater reward. My husband, true to old wives' tales, had a fit of jealousy and abandoned all housework to put up an addition to the house, his own exercise in creativity.
And which, I ask you, is more important to us, the child or the new back room? Which of us feels that his/her task has more significance? I am happy, in fact, to work part time and stay home most days. If that means the grocery list falls to my lot, so be it.
The feminism I knew was partial -- not wrong, just a partial view, while I have grown into something more complicated. I feel, to answer your question, husband, that women's liberation is the most profound revolution of our times, that most of its changes are good for most people, that tolerance, individuality, freedom of choice, not to mention justice, have all been enhanced. Just now, our child is very young and therefore time-consuming. So ask me later, would you?
And would you take Kate for a day this weekend so I can read? I do get to feeling pulled from here to there sometimes, but my life has offered me a variety of roles and responsibilities not readily available to a man. And I thank the women' movement for that.