by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Dear Maureen Dowd:
Thank you so for your recent column, Blue is the New Black . Thanks for enlightening me about how women today are SO unhappy because of all the choices heaped upon us since the feminist revolution began in 1972. I always knew my troubles were all Gloria Steinem’s fault.
Thanks for explaining that:
- Unlike today, before the 1970s, women in America felt greater well-being than men (I’d like to insert a smiley face here, please)
- That having stepped into male-dominated realms (you don’t say which ones, but I assume you mean paid work like journalism, politics, medicine, academia, professional sports, television and entertainment, and perhaps the gym) we women have put more demands upon our wittle selves
- That women are much harder on ourselves than men are on themselves (how could we CHOOSE to be so dumb?)
- That women’s lives are increasingly crowded yet increasingly empty, even with all these darn choices
- That having kids makes us unhappy, even though of course we’d never admit that publicly
Maureen, I’d really like you to meet my mother. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1956 – when you were four years old. She got married in 1958, and like your mother, gave birth to five children long before the Pill or reliable birth control made reproductive choice available. My mother had her last child in 1972, the year your source, The General Social Survey , began tracking Americans’ moods.
Mom mostly stayed home with us kids while my father worked long, intellectually stimulating hours in the relative peace and quiet of his law firm. He traveled frequently throughout the United States, Europe and Asia for his work. He earned lots of money. Unfortunately we kids were a handful, always hungry and thirsty and just a tad bratty, energetic and insouciant; one of my favorite memories is of Mom throwing her black high heels at us because we would not be quiet while she took a phone call. She’d played three varsity sports in college so she had darn good aim.
She raised us kids without benefit of an involved husband, disposable diapers, carseats or even regular use of a car, a microwave, a breast pump, childcare, a computer, the Internet, or even a cordless phone. Dad kept her on an allowance. I recall her crying in frustration when she did not have enough money to buy us shoes or pay the pediatrician’s bill. We did in fact have the money, Dad just controlled it rather stringently, spending it on Redskins season tickets and new suits instead. His contribution to the household was to take us to the zoo for two hours on Sundays, if the weather was good and there was no football game on tv.
When she could, Mom worked off and on in the one field open to her and many other women born in the 1930s: teaching. Then after 32 years of motherhood and marriage, my father left her. He was a partner at a prominent international law firm, with lots of professional legal relationships in our town’s courts. Let’s just say Mom had to fight like a proverbial female dog to get any economic support whatsoever. She hadn’t really worked in 30 years, people said; what was she due financially anyway?
Was Mom happy? Happier than Dad? Happier than I am today?
I’m not sure it’s a question even worth asking. It’s impossible to say, because unlike women who write New York Times columns in 2009, until fairly recently moms had no place to express their feelings or opinions. Men, who controlled the newspapers, magazines and publishing houses in those days, didn’t think women’s domestic struggles were battles worth cataloguing. My mother didn’t write a blog about her life. She didn’t even get to comment on someone else’s blog! There was no female literary tradition beyond women who quietly drowned themselves. American housewives and lower income workers had no loudspeaker or any vehicle whatsoever to express themselves. Unless you count smiling in a laundry detergent ad or the words they muttered under their breath while pushing a broom or changing yet another one of those soggy cloth diapers.
So Maureen, no one knows whether women of my mother’s generation, or yours, were actually happier than men or than their female counterparts today. Women’s emotions and opinions were suppressed, ignored, dismissed, denigrated, and poo-pooed. And lost for posterity. We will never have an objective record of what your mother, my mother or any others actually experienced.
However, there were witnesses: our mothers’ children. That’s me and you, Maureen. I saw every day how lonely, and frustrated, and demoralized our culture made Mom feel as a stay-at-home mom and later as a working mother. I don’t know if I could survive being belittled, disempowered and diminished every day the way Mom was throughout her life. I love my mother and I respect how she has lived her life. She was – is -- beautiful, full of talent and spirit and idealism, patient, and a better, smarter human being than any of the men I knew growing up, including Dad.
However, I’d throw myself into an Italian nunnery or off the top of the Empire State Building before I’d take my mother’s lifestyle in exchange for mine. I appreciate today’s complicated choices, divorce and alimony laws, maternity leave, baby monitors, epidurals, breast cancer walks, birth control, female legal representation, Hillary Clinton in the State Department and Michelle Obama in the White House. I even appreciate YOU, Maureen.
My guess is that you wouldn’t trade your life as a New York Times columnist for your mother’s life raising five children as a policeman’s stay-at-home wife. You and I and most other American women born after 1950 have had many choices and legal protections our mothers may have silently believed in, but never enjoyed themselves. Shutting up, or being shut up, brings its own private unhappiness that no survey can ever capture.
And anyway, I don’t really care about “unhappiness.” It’s not such a bad fate. Lack of any real choices – and no ability to bitch about it -- is much worse.
Thanks again, Maureen. Now I feel much better.