I think of myself as a first-generation feminist. Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique opened my eyes when I was in my twenties. I earned my Ph.D. and became an outlaw among the doctors' wives I associated with; I wore blue jean suits when they wore silk dresses. I was never a hard-core feminist, I shed my bra only when I thought I could get away with it and I never smoked pot. Much of the sixties escaped me because I was a newlywed, a graduate student, and a new mother, but I staunchly defended women's right to abortion, equal pay, equal opportunity, and freedom. The contributors to True Confessions left me behind in the dust.
In the first part of the book, "Personal Narratives," the writers seem, in one way or another, to be rebelling against their dysfunctional childhoods. As one woman says "I had to do what I could to share the news with other women." I don't relate to several of them who react with matrophobia—the fear of becoming like your mother. My mother gave me great love, taught me to laugh at the silliest things, to love education, and—perhaps her greatest gift—to love cooking. In retrospect, I realize she was dependant, sometimes manipulative, the perfect pre-Freidan wife and mother, but she did what worked for her. And she passed it on to me.
These women speak a language foreign to me: labial politics and labial pedagogy (it has to do with layers but bewilders me completely). Then there were the fathers whose deep and dark private parts were always a secret. Really? I never thought about it much. I had a brother so I knew about male anatomy. No big secret there.
The parents described in the book were unloving and destructive—strident grandmothers, doormat mothers, and critical fathers who never praised their children. Forgiveness runs like a thread throughout the book but these women seem unable to forgive, even one who is cautioned she will never find peace until she forgives her mother. One woman says we are shaped by our sisters—soul sisters as opposed to biological ones.
Cultural backgrounds shape some of these stories as well; there are essays from Jewish, Asian, Islam, Filipino and Indian women. Many write about having a sense of the strength of their foremothers, but still feeling constrained by their culture and powerless when things went wrong.
The happiest essay in this section is by a woman in whose family nurturing men were the cooks and women were relegated to the role of sous chef. Even so, there were things men didn't do like laundry, clearing the table, and washing the dishes. Woman's work was clearly woman's work.
In Part II: Professional Vistas, I am on more familiar ground. Most of these women began their professional careers in the 1960's and 1970's in elite universities while I labored toward a PhD. in English at a small private university in Texas. I know that gender discrimination ruled in those years. I went through graduate school as a teaching fellow with an NDEA fellowship and, at one point, some faculty members suggested that women shouldn't get these fellowships since we had husbands to support us. My husband, a surgical resident, actually brought home $50 a month less than I did.
One woman postulates that misogyny in universities came down to power. Sexual harassment was common as a way to obtain power not love. Faculty ratios of men to women were surprisingly high on the male side. One woman remembers commenting on how few women were on the faculty only to have a male colleague tell her, in effect, that there were a lot of women after WWII because the men were all gone. "But we got rid of them." The phrase stuck with her.
In the 1960's and 1970's lesbians faced a set of unique problems. To preserve their careers they remained in the closet. Many did what was called "front dating," going to events with a homosexual male so they looked "normal." At least that stigma has largely disappeared—a step forward for feminism.
One contributor points out that in the 1970's very little, if any, literature written by women was studied in graduate English programs. Today the topic is prominent in curriculum offerings and scholarly criticism, and some schools have entire sub-departments for Women's Studies. It brings to mind the old saying, "You've come a long way, baby."
Yet, according to one contributor, even today with the proliferation of women in academic departments women are losing ground. The number of women who hold PhDs far outnumber tenured female faculty members and, especially at elite schools, male faculty greatly outnumber female. Some think it's because the issue of feminism has faded and we assume we've finished the work. But women haven't reached the goal of achieving academic equality yet. Their feminist consciousness grew in reaction to their treatment thirty or forty years ago, they ran a good race...but there are still miles to go.
This book is a retrospective look at the women's world of the 1960s and 1970s and how their experiences impelled them toward feminism. I'd be interested in learning what these feminists have to say about the present...and the future.
She lives in Bloomington, Indiana.
Susan Gubar is a Distinguied Professor emerita at Indiana University, coathur of the pioneering work, The MadWoman in the Attic, and co-editor of The Northon Anthology of Literature by Women. Most recently, she is the author of Judas: A Biography.
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