Women of the Class of 1963 celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation from Trinity College in Washington this past weekend embodied the vibrant charm and confident achievements of the generation of women who came of age in the transformative years of the 1960s. Seniors when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, Trinity's Class of 1963 graduated in an era when women's professional horizons were still limited by social norms and blatant sexism in many places. Despite the challenges, the women of 1963 made the most of their higher education across a range of professions while also raising families, running households and supporting parishes and communities across the country.
The young women in Trinity's Class of 2013, enjoying the chance to meet the 50th class as they helped out as staff assistants during alumnae reunion, graduated two weeks ago into a world with vastly different expectations for women. And yet, some of the same old prejudices and barriers also confront the latest generation of Trinity Women. As I watched these two generations of talented women, different by half a century of cultural change but joined by Trinity's long tradition of women's leadership and advancement in our society, I could not help but wonder why women must still suffer the ridiculous and often painful put-downs, doubts and outright discrimination we face in too many places in our society today.
"The Feminine Mystique" was Friedan's iconic phrase for "the problem that has no name." 50 years later, let's name it clearly: the deliberate objectification, even infantilization, of women in order to limit the expansion of women's power in society. In 1963, the "problem" was the socially constructed image of "happy" women as homemakers and mothers, exemplified by advertisements such as those that showed well-coifed women in high heels running vacuum cleaners -- an appliance marketed as some kind of magic wand to keep women at home and happy. Women dared not say they wanted more -- to create their own idea of fulfillment through release of their creative genius at work or in pursuit of occupations other than cleaning, cooking and child-rearing.
In 2013, the "problem" has reared its ugly head again as recently as last week in the reaction of some men to the news that women are now 40% of the breadwinners for households in America. Seems that the good news of women's increasingly strong earning power has set off raging alarm bells in some deep caves.
On Fox, Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson became practically hysterical at this news, saying that working women are not natural, are responsible for the breakup of marriages, and foretelling the end of human society as we have known it.
These men are framing the very idea of women bringing home the bacon as the most socially calamitous thing that has ever befallen the world. Their words and attitudes are not so very different from the hyperbolic warnings that were raised against the founding of Trinity and other women's colleges in the late 19th century -- prophecies of great social catastrophes that would occur if women went to college. Across the span of more than ten decades, even as women have made great progress in society and many workplaces, the active resentment of women's advancement continues unabated.
Trinity Women in the Class of 1963 might have gone to work voluntarily, for the most part, and they excelled in their chosen professions. Trinity Women in the Class of 2013 have not really had the choice at all -- they must work, they have worked throughout their college days, and they will keep working long into their advanced years. They work because they are women on the rise among populations previously marginalized by some of the very same oppressive attitudes that have suppressed horizons for women in all social classes -- women who also happen to be African American and Latina, many from low income families, young women who started families as teenage moms, older women who learned years ago how to manage children and households and jobs and collegiate assignments all by themselves.
Despite more than half a century of evidence of women's intellectual competence and leadership capacity, some men continue to try to perpetrate the feminine mystique of women's inherent inferiority in the professions. Just a few weeks ago, we had the maddening spectacle of Paul Tudor Jones going on and on at a conference at the University of Virginia about how "a girl" could never, ever be a successful macro trader because of the inherent dangers that motherhood will pose to her ability to think straight. "As soon as that baby's lips touch that girl's bosom, forget it..."
It's time to demolish "the feminine mystique" once and for all. Women have a right to work, to become economically secure and self-sufficient, and to be treated with respect. The backlash against the large amount of decisive evidence of women's abilities and economic advancement is not benign.
While some might simply dismiss comments like those of Paul Tudor Jones or Erick Erickson as silly rhetoric, in fact, the rhetoric gives other men license to shut the doors of opportunity hard and fast in the faces of ambitious women. Worse, some men will hear such rhetoric as approval of more pernicious behaviors reinforcing male entitlements from keeping board rooms and C-suites and as estrogen-free zones, to using sex abuse and sexual abasement as cruel weapons to keep women in their place. We need look no further than the horrific scandal of sex abuse in the military where women have made great strides professionally, and yet, have paid high prices for their advancement.
Misogynist men who insist on perpetrating the myth of the "feminine mystique" are making a big mistake. No matter how much they fulminate, discriminate and harass women, we will continue the march of progress. Deal with it, guys!