The following was written in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, during which time I was a newly “liberated” woman with a family and a demanding career. I happened upon this essay while sorting through a box of old writing, looking for something else. Apparently I had submitted it to a couple of magazines, but it wasn’t taken and was set aside as I went on to other things, mostly professional work and raising children. I’m now long past those pursuits, am retired, and have teenage grandchildren. Nonetheless, the piece seemed relevant to this blog, if for nothing other than historical interest. I decided to transcribe it and include it here – serialized, of course. The title was obviously relevant: “On Being a Woman: Options.”
I’m in my mid-forties, now, having entered the middle years as a woman whose adult life has spanned the pre- and post-“liberation” era. My experiences during the past quarter century have, in many ways, paralleled the themes and events of the contemporary women’s movement, and I’ve had the urge, lately, to reflect upon that transition from the perspective of one who has lived through it. It seems to me that one of the key features of the cultural reorientation emerging from the women’s movement has been an increase in the scope of life choices now available to women. More particularly, the possibility of coupling career with family has become an option that is now considered both realistic and desirable.
From the time I was quite young, something subconscious, almost instinctive, told me that my life would not be really fulfilled without a mate and children. But something else, perhaps conditioned, but no less powerful, and always conscious, compelled me to do well and generated an unquestioned assumption that I would have a job and career. As a child, I had read Wonder Woman comics and Nancy Drew mystery stories and had appropriated the message that it was possible to be both competent and feminine.
To be sure, having been raised during the forties and early fifties, I could not avoid being exposed to assumptions about female roles and behavior which tended to limit initiative and competence. I remember the injunction in a well-meaning book for blossoming young ladies not to outshine their men for love’s sake. “Let him beat you on the tennis court even if you are a better player.” I remember sitting in the car until my date came around and opened the door. I remember never paying for a date and not even wondering about how the young man obtained the money. I remember thinking that marriage would ensure happiness ever after.
When I entered college, I was enthusiastic, idealistic, and steeped in the then-current mythology of what it meant to be a woman. But I also thought that I could have it both ways, that I could do well academically (prepare for a career) and be socially popular (eventually marry and have children). Thus, I was surprised and offended by the advice of my undergraduate “advisor” (a male history professor) who suggested that I shouldn’t take both biology and chemistry courses the same year because they were too difficult. And besides, I was just going to get married after I graduated, so why take a pre-med course? And I was bewildered and hurt when a boyfriend’s interest cooled rapidly after he discovered that I had made all “A’s” my first semester in college (yes, taking both chemistry and biology courses). “I knew you were smart, but I didn’t know you were that smart.” I also became indignant when a female biology professor counseled me not to get married because any stupid woman could marry and have children.
These are all old stories by now, recounted by thousands of women to therapists, or in consciousness-raising groups, until their power to elicit pain and anger has abated to tolerable levels. Taken together, these stories depict middle-twentieth-century woman drawn simultaneously to—and sometimes paralyzed between—the poles of personal achievement and interpersonal relationships. The responses to this double-bind have ranged from militant rage to tranquilized escape. Many women, however, have been silent pioneers and have taken a poorly charted middle road, neither highly visible, nor yet comfortably safe. In so doing, they have enlarged the potential scope and role-options of all women. I would like to think that I have been among this group… (to be continued)