My oldest granddaughter graduated from the University of Kansas last weekend with honors in English and German. She wrote her honors thesis on feminist attitudes, then and now. I was able to read it when I went to Lawrence for the graduation celebration, and I found myself surprised at some of the attitudes she unearthed.
She based the thesis on interviews of women representing various generations. I was probably the oldest woman she interviewed, with her scholarship hall friends being the youngest. When I was in my early 20s, I read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique with my third baby on my lap. As I read, I had that "click" of recognition that so many feminists in the late '60s and early '70s talked about. I realized the feminist movement gave a name to what I'd been looking for most of my life.
Keep in mind I wasn't one of those women who lived in America's suburbs and who, out of boredom or for whatever reason, dosed themselves daily with pills and alcohol. I became a mother when I was 19 and soon I had three small children to fill my days. At the time I read The Feminine Mystique, my family was living in a farmhouse on the outskirts of a small Missouri town. Some people used the pasture behind us to board their horses. The farmhouse wasn't a bad place to live. In fact, it was kind of pleasant to live there after I got a washer and dryer to handle all the laundry three small children and a husband generated.
However, when winter rolled in and we had a couple of weeks on a row during which the temperature didn't get above 15 degrees in the daytime, I knew we had to find another place to live. I also knew by then that until I found and fulfilled my passion, whatever it might be, I would always be dissatisfied.
As with all young mothers, most of my passion centered on the care of my children. That's as it should be and I enjoyed my kids. They pulled me out of myself, which is a good thing, and kept me entertained most of the time.
However, I always knew I wanted to be independent. Most young married women with children are not in a position to be independent, at least not at the time when I was young. Even so, I still felt the push to free myself of my husband's economic hold on me and as soon as I could I began working toward that goal.
I finally became free when we divorced several years later. I eventually became a high school journalism teacher, and even though my children and I went through some difficult times, I was able to support myself without help from anyone.
Also, I felt that I'd come into my own as a feminist. At the time we lived in a small Kansas town, but many of my friends were also divorced and taking care of their families, and we had a certain camaraderie among us.
When I moved to Wichita, I joined the Wichita chapter of the National Organization for Women. This happened to be close to the time that Operation Rescue began its assault on Dr. George Tiller's abortion clinic. I became involved with other women, and men, who were going up against those who wanted to take women's reproductive rights away. It was through that involvement that I made many of the feminist friends who remain my friends to this day.
I know assumptions are a dangerous thing, but I did assume that those women who came after me would carry on the work of the feminists who had gone before. What I discovered was that the women my granddaughter interviewed, a small sample, to be sure, expressed a certain disinterest in the feminist movement. Even my granddaughter's step-grandmother, ten years younger than I, said she didn't consider herself a feminist because she hadn't read the books. I don't know what to make of that. She did point out that in her profession, she has to hold her own with men who must be convinced that she knows as much as they do.
The real eye-opener came in her interviews with her young classmates. A couple of them said a wife should be subservient to her husband and should be at home to take care of family. They did admit that women should have equality, but it wasn't clear what that meant to them.
Yes, I'm shocked a little to see that a movement I felt was so crucial to women seems to have passed many women by. Of course, with such a small sample, it's difficult to know the attitudes of most young woman. However, those of us who fought for equal rights for women, something that has yet to be, it is disappointing that younger women think the battle has been won,or wasn't necessary in the first place, and they don't need that "click" of recognition to motivate them.