THE BLOG
03/07/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated May 07, 2013

Why Write Women's History?

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Women's History Month, the television documentary Makers: Women Who Make America provided a valuable retrospective on the second wave of feminism.

Seven years after Friedan's book appeared, many American women remained ambivalent about the movement. In 1970 only 16.5 percent of all married women worked outside the home. By 1975, slightly more than 70 percent of women with children under the age of six were still at home. Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of black and other minority women remained trapped in blue-collar and menial jobs with little opportunity to escape.

Despite the widespread press coverage of Friedan's "problem without a name" and its solution, social change occurred only gradually. Most young middle class women hesitated casting aside their traditional roles, fearing negative reactions from their husbands, children and older relatives.

As a mother of young children myself, I nevertheless served as a stringer, or regular contributor to suburban and special sections of The New York Times, serving in what today would be dubbed the "mommy track." In 1975, working mothers in my suburban community required letters from their employers confirming their jobs so their youngsters could eat lunch at school rather than returning home for that meal. Quality day care programs did not exist. My husband, like those of my friends and neighbors, commuted to a city job which meant long hours away from home.

That social disconnect between the rhetoric of the woman's liberation movement and the realities of suburban life led me to wonder about women across the country who were also beginning to change traditional roles. As a journalist I I had to find out.

To do so I interviewed 400 women in six suburban areas across America whose results appeared in my 1982 book The New Suburban Woman: Beyond Myth and Motherhood. Those interviews revealed that suburban women were restless, planning to return to work, to complete college or advanced degree or start their own businesses. Many were happily married and proud of their children but simply wanted more. Lacking adequate child care, the financial resources to return to school or the support or their husbands presented a dilemma. Their solution? Most of them were waiting until their children were grown before returning to school or entering the workforce full-time, often using volunteer work to gain experience and credentials.

In contrast were a growing cadre of radical feminists who burned bras, insisted their husbands share the housework, renounced child care and/or marriage, celebrated female sexuality as a "right" and engaged in lesbian relationships. Not coincidentally, the divorce rate skyrocketed. Child-care companies boomed across America. Roe v. Wade became law.

By the end of the 1970s, conservative women had retrenched, prompted by the national debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, and contested by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly's whose STOP ERA campaign successfully frightened women into believing that if it passed, they would lose their "protected" status, their men, financial support, privacy and their femininity.

Simultaneously, technological advances in tandem with the woman's movement were producing other changes, among them the wider use of birth control, in vitro conception and surrogate motherhood. While reflected in my 1984 book, The Mother Mirror: How a Generation of Women Is Changing Motherhood in America, those developments did not sufficiently plumb the obstacles that lay beneath the feminist struggle, the wellsprings of biology, natural instinct and human tradition that led to popular concepts of womanhood.

To understand that required an examination of the lives of earlier women, their struggles and their effect upon the course of civilization. In the '70s and early '80s, recorded history was still largely a record of male deeds, wars and accomplishments. Relatively little was published about women's lives, save for those who were exceptional beauties, lovers, sirens, caregivers and villains. Surely there was more to be discovered and placed on the historical record. Lacking that, women's lives and accomplishments would continue to be invisible, forgotten -- and devalued.

As the television documentary, Makers: Women Who Make America so dramatically illustrated many of us -- not only writers but the cresting tide of all women -- mothers, teachers, administrative assistants, nurses, female CEOS, social workers -- joined the fearless feminists of the past to carve out fuller, more rewarding lives today.

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