Feminism, 50 years on

Today’s blog comes to you via The Huffington Post and it marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – a book, I have to confess, I’d barely even heard of until recently.

No, I definitely didn’t spend my formative years reading up on feminism and women’s lib like some other women my age. I wasn’t very politically aware – too many other things to worry about I guess: my body shape and size, how far I needed to run to burn off the consumed calories, whether people liked me or not.

I remember, when I was at university, stumbling upon a poll tax march in London one weekend. The march had turned into a riot, cars were on fire and there was broken glass everywhere. That was the first I’d heard about the violence. I’d been drinking beer in the sun with my university chums and watching the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. I did have an opinion about the poll tax and I do remember attending the odd march, but I guess I just wasn’t bothered enough to dedicate much time to the protest.

Or maybe, back then, I was politically apathetic because I was too unsure about myself to voice any opinions or even to trust myself to have any.

Well, I’m still pretty unsure about myself, especially when it comes to airing my opinions on public platforms, but I’m doing it all the same.

If you’d read this piece already via the Huff Post then I’m afraid to say there’s nothing new. If you hadn’t, then here it is – and your comments are very welcome. I’m working on a more personal follow-up but it’s not quite ready yet. In the meantime:

Fifty Years on From ‘The Feminine Mystique’, Now Childless Working Women Ask, ‘Is This All?’

Half a century after bored American housewives asked, “Is this all?” in Betty Friedan‘s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, many professional women are asking the same question – but for very different reasons.

Swept along by feminism’s second wave, a movement ignited by Friedan’s work, women in their 30s and 40s who’ve fulfilled their intellectual potential and earned their independence are waking up to the fact they might also want children – and they’re wondering how on earth it all got so late.

As a 41-year-old, single female with an impressive CV, a passport full of stamps and a foot on the London property ladder, I am one of these women. And as a journalist who’s writing a book about the predicament of would-be mothers of a certain age, I’ve talked to women around the world who are in the same boat.

Don’t get me wrong: I, for one, am hugely grateful that Friedan and her contemporaries liberated us from the tyranny of the kitchen sink.

I imagine I might be experiencing what she called “the problem that has no name” – “a vague undefined wish for ‘something more'” – if I had never had the chance to work, although I respect women for whom homemaking has been enough.

I also agree with the columnists and bloggers who, in recent days, have noted that the battle for gender equality is by no means won.

But for those experiencing feminism’s unintended consequences – childless, working women of my generation who, just like Friedan’s housewives, are wondering if there’s ‘something more’ – it can feel like the pendulum swung too far the other way.

In Britain today, one in five women reaches their mid-40s without children, a rate that’s nearly double that of the previous generation and comparable to that of women born in 1920, whose main childbearing years fell during World War II. The statistics are similar in the United States.

For some women, this will be out of choice, but for many others it’s down to circumstance.

There’s also been a surge in women giving birth over 40, but statistics show it’s not going to work out for all of us, even with the miracles of science.

So today, women in their late 30s and 40s who might want children – particularly those who are single – face a whole different set of choices to those initially offered by women’s lib: do I freeze my eggs or have I left it too late? Do I date like my life depends on it – shaving five years off my age on my online profile so I don’t appear desperate?

Do I explore IVF, co-parenting or look into adoption and do I have the financial and emotional reserves to do so? Or do I accept motherhood might not happen to me and make peace with a potentially childfree/childless future (depending on how you look at it)?

Many women have put their hard-earned independence to good use by visiting a sperm bank or adopting on their own.

But for those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t want to go it alone, it’s the most traditional of options we worry is slipping out of reach: the chance to meet someone, spend time getting to know them – free from baby angst – and to decide, as part of a partnership, whether to try for children or not (‘try’ being the operative word, because of course we never know).

As one 39-year-old female doctor told me: “I want the ability to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, rather than have the choice taken away from me because I haven’t met the right person or I’ve run out of time or whatever.”

Some might say that as so-called ‘career women’ we made our beds so now we have to lie in them. The word ‘selfish’ is often bandied about. But none of us recall making a deliberate choice to put work before families.

We simply followed the suggestions of our parents, teachers and glossy magazines and seized the opportunities presented to us, opportunities that our mothers often hadn’t had.

We studied and worked hard, travelled the world and dated a string of inappropriate men (or was that last one just me?), never meeting anyone we wanted to settle down with or never feeling ready to commit. After all, we had plenty of time, right?

Ask any woman of my generation about the messages she heard when she was growing up and ‘make sure you plan for motherhood’ probably won’t feature.

But she’ll likely tell you she was encouraged to fulfil her potential and establish her independence. Maybe she heard she could “have it all”. And if her parents split up in the 1970s divorce boom like mine did, perhaps she was told never to depend on a man or not to bother with men at all.

Even in our mid-30s, often we were still building our careers and moving in childless circles. One friend recalls that at 35, she was thinking she still had years to get pregnant – instead, if you look at the statistics, her fertility had just dropped off a cliff.

And there was always IVF, we thought, sometimes without realising that the chances of conceiving via in-vitro also diminish drastically with age.

Then, in our late 30s or early 40s, we came up against a rapidly diminishing pool of potential partners. You only have to glance at an online dating site to see how things have got skewed – many men my age set the upper limit of their desired female partner at 38, if not younger, for understandable and slightly infuriating reasons. Like us, they don’t want an instant baby – but they do want the choice.

Of course, plenty of my school and university contemporaries had careers and children and they grew up in the same social context as me. So clearly there are individual reasons why women end up on the verge of missing the baby boat – mine include my parents’ divorce, addictions that flourished in my 20s and recovery from them that consumed much of my 30s.

But there are also societal and cultural reasons why there are so many women around my age who are wondering if it’s too late for biological motherhood, or who are grieving the fact they’ll never give birth.

Social movements, as experts note, often bring unintended consequences and it’s clear things are now balancing out.

From my conversations with women in their 20s, they’re aware they’ll need to plan for families if that’s what they want. The media is filled with stories of failed IVF cycles and the perils of late motherhood while enough women are talking publicly about their experiences around childlessness or the difficulties of finding a mate.

And, increasingly, thanks to women like Anne-Marie Slaughter, today’s professional women are also aware that combining high-level careers and motherhood requires painful compromises.

Hopefully, as we press on with the work begun by our feminist predecessors, societal expectations, government policies and workplace schedules will adapt to ensure more of us can have careers and families before time runs out – so in the future large numbers of women won’t end up childless without having made the choice.

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3 Responses to Feminism, 50 years on

  1. roisinwill@yahoo.com says:

    I tried to tweet a response to this today but my twitter skills leave a lot to be desired. What I was hoping to say was how shocked I was by some of the comments on the huff list site. Some people really hate frminism (or at least what they perceive to be) don’t they? And I think some others just hate women full stop.

    • Hi Roisin,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s generally the case that those who support the premise of the article don’t comment and those that want to attack it, find plenty of time to share their thoughts! There are a few more comments on the site now that are more supportive and from women who can relate to what I was talking about. It’s been an interesting exercise and good for thickening my skin! Hope you’re well.
      Katherine x

  2. Ines says:

    Hello, I like your blog and the issues you write about. I wanted to say, though, that when you say –

    “Do I explore IVF, co-parenting or look into adoption and do I have the financial and emotional reserves to do so? Or do I accept motherhood might not happen to me and make peace with a potentially childfree/childless future (depending on how you look at it)?”

    If you’re 42 I would make a decision one way or the other. IVF is pretty expensive and at 42 your eggs will be older. Co-parenting requires a child and a partner (it usually refers to parenting after a break-up or divorce) and finding the right man to love and have kids with may happen in a few more years yet. I think, at 42, you are going to have to carve out a new path – and ask yourself if you want kids. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s natural to want a partner, and for many women having kids without a loving man is not an option – and this is entirely valid. But, at 42, I think you need to really ask yourself if you want kids and that if you don’t go it alone it may not happen. To really ask yourself, if, in 10 years, you would rather have a child and a partner, or have no kids and be dating, or have no kids and a partner. It would also seem, from what I know of life, that at 42+ any man you meet and love and who loves you will do so for the right reasons (e.g will be unlikely to be in for a “bit of skirt” as may be the case with younger women) and the child, if you have one, will be part of who you are and your choices. So, I really don’t think having a child or not with be the reason for not meeting a partner. I’m not in your position, although I have family members who are (one main reason I read blogs like this), but I’m a mom and it’s wonderful, and I find it hard to sit by and not say this. It’s too disingenuous to the whole conversation about women – as women we need all choices. So I guess you have to ask yourself what is most important? Or even, what is equally important? If having a child is, then I think you need to act sooner rather than later. And, rather than networking mainly with women who don’t have kids, or can’t, why not also network or at least talk with women trying to adopt (for example). There are kids in orphanages the world over that need a family and a loving parent.

    This is a good UK site on adoption (also as a single person) – http://www.internationaladoptionguide.co.uk/

    I have children and so I haven’t adopted any kids – although it is something I have always been interested in and still hope to do some day. I realise that my response may be taken to be hypocritical or sanctimonious, given I have kids/married and am not in your position – but I hope that you will believe that that is absolutely not my intention! I just think that having kids is wonderful and if you think, even a little, that you want kids – than I really think you owe it to yourself to look into it or to pursue it with all you have. I want to add my voice here – because while it is important and necessary that women are be able to carve out a positive identity without kids, and that this is something that society absolutely needs to account for, accept and offer support with – having a child in your life IS wonderful and if you can use X amount of energy/time/angst questioning it and if it’s something you do want, you would be better off spending that time pursuing an outcome. It’s like travel – many people are naysayers, highlight the risk, etc – but if you don’t go/try/take the risk life is less richer in comparison (not of course that I’m comparing bringing up children – which is also hard work – with travel). Children also take you out of yourself (you do, in a sense “grow up”) there isn’t the opportunity for endless navel gazing and that often means you are more “yourself” and people will prob pick up on it. It also puts you in the region for meeting single dads (there are lots of men at babygroups these days – some single, some not).

    Anyway – I wanted to add a perspective from a mom, I hope that’s Ok and I haven’t offended you at all. I really hope you find peace whatever you choose 🙂

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