About 13 years ago, a Florida Wal-Mart pulled a T-shirt from its shelves, calling it offensive and against family values. The shirt read, “Someday a woman will be president.”
Graduates of the class of 2008 are entering a world conceived and then made real by generations of women. Women who marched in the streets, joined class action suits, campaigned for equal rights; women who took jobs when their families needed the income, who went back to school when their children grew up or who went into business for themselves so they could bring their children to work. Those who sacrificed their careers—temporarily or permanently—to stay home and be full-time parents increasingly raised their own daughters to be self-sufficient and to take full advantage of the new opportunities opening to them.
Over nearly 10 years of teaching at Notre Dame I have watched my female students join these liberating generations, making their own choices and embarking on a multitude of career and life paths. The young woman who challenged every feminist reading I assigned and then decided she was a feminist, too, is working for a multinational corporation; the straight-A student whose boyfriend bought her coffee before class is now married to him and raising their child; the honors student who did Teach for America for two years is applying to graduate school in art history. They are lawyers, actors, corporate executives, teachers, buyers, musicians, scholars, social workers. They differ very little in their career choices from their male counterparts.
Students at Notre Dame are ambitious, intelligent and thoughtfully engaged in the world around them. That much has not changed in the 36 years since women have been admitted as undergraduates. For men, however, these characteristics have always fit perfectly with the social expectations of their traditional roles as breadwinners and active forces in the public sphere.
Women, however, have faced confusing and sometimes conflicting messages and pressures in living out the fulfillment of their ambition, their intelligence and their engagement in the world. In this sense, much has changed in the world since women first entered the University as undergraduates. Things were, in fact, already changing quite dramatically in the years leading up to Notre Dame’s integration of women.
By 1972 a combination of factors had shifted expectations for American women’s lives. The postwar boom in producing babies and consumer goods had expanded the middle class in the late 1940s and ’50s, and created a new role for the modern white middle-class woman as full-time housewife and mother, just when technology promised to reduce the time spent on housework. Despite frozen dinners, cake mixes, vacuum cleaners and an array of kitchen appliances at her disposal, the suburban housewife was expected to dedicate her life to her family, submerging her identity in the process.
One strand of feminism, represented most visibly by Betty Friedan, author of 1963’s The Feminine Mystique and co-founder in 1966 of the National Organization for Women, called on these white, middle-class women to recognize that the unhappiness they felt was part of a systemic problem. Although conservative critics complained wryly that Friedan had somehow managed to find no happy housewives, rising divorce rates and other indicators supported her contention that many were dissatisfied.
Friedan’s main concerns were the lack of choice she and her college-educated peers had had in the 1950s in whether to follow the career their education had prepared them for or to stay at home as full-time housewives and mothers. Without the ability to make that choice for themselves, Friedan argued, women were denied self-fulfillment. In fact, women had already been making the move back into the workforce quietly for several years before her book was published, and federal legislation in 1963 and ’64 called for equal pay and an end to gender-based discrimination. NOW was organized to push enforcement of these laws.
It was the Baby Boomers, the daughters of these post-war housewives, who made up the first female undergraduates at Notre Dame. They came of age during the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. As they finished high school, liberal feminists campaigned for equal opportunity, equal pay, fair treatment in employment. By 1972 radical feminists, many themselves college students, redefined such concepts as sexual harassment, marital rape, date rape, double standards and reproductive rights. Although numerous areas of discrimination still remained, this generation faced an unprecedented array of possibilities in higher education and the work force.
As women entered professional, business and academic arenas in larger and larger numbers, they first learned to work in a male-defined world. Gradually they began to reshape the cultures of those institutions—a process that continues today. Those first female students initiated a similar progression at Notre Dame. They faced open hostility, social segregation and a male-based culture in classrooms and student activities. Among that class of women were several African-American students; their isolation must have been even more intense. This landmark generation of female Notre Dame students was breaking barriers both inside and beyond the University.
In the 1980s the career woman had finally regained the positive image she had last held after World War I, but her achievements were not without critics or backlash. Women were celebrated for being able to “have it all,” which in many cases meant working full time and continuing to be responsible for childrearing and household needs. They spent so much time “after hours” doing the labor necessary to keep their family going that sociologists dubbed it a “second shift.” As the difficulties in maintaining such schedules became apparent, the problem was almost universally seen as a women’s issue. Could they really have it all?
But the causes—and the solutions—were much more complicated than most media and popular framings held. Few men were upgrading their household responsibilities; few companies were willing to accommodate women’s physical reproductive roles, let alone their usual social roles as well. Corporate culture was changing, sometimes forcibly through lawsuits, but flex time, paid maternity leaves, work-from-home options, even equal pay, were inconsistent at best.
At the same time, however, economic downshifts made it difficult for a majority of families to survive on one income. Families, companies and communities all needed women’s participation in the work force. But most of these institutions were slow to restructure themselves to accommodate the changes that had been in motion for decades.
Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, my female students are worried. We discuss this history in my course “American Men, American Women,” which saw a record enrollment of male students this past year. They all believe in equal rights, equal opportunities, all the fundamental claims of feminism. But few young women, and fewer men, identify themselves as feminists. Their interest in this history is a little more personal, however.
As we go through the studies of families and parenting in the 1980s and ’90s they get apprehensive. Fewer than 20 percent of men in two-career marriages even claimed to do their “fair share” of the work in the late 1980s; when women earned more than their husbands, the men did even less.
“Things have changed now, haven’t they?” my students ask. Some even know families with stay-at-home dads, who are the primary caretakers for their children, a phenomenon unfortunately known as SAHDs.
Things are changing, slowly. More stay-at-home fathers, more husbands in dual-career families doing more of the housework and more tedious childcare tasks. My students, graduating almost four decades after their institutional grandmothers first enrolled at Notre Dame, have a much better chance of having the support in place in their family, their community and their workplace to fulfill their ambitions, use their talents, make a mark in the world and raise their children the way they want to. But they will encounter many of the same obstacles.
We discuss Betty Friedan in this class as well. “What do you want in life to feel fulfilled?” I ask my students. Mostly the same things Friedan assumed women wanted: a career, an outlet for their talents, a family, a way to make a mark on the world.
Those who want to be stay-at-home mothers are rarely offended at her message of choice for women, of options and the encouragement to have their own identities. Motherhood is an experience many students hold as sacred, a necessary step in their own transformation into womanhood. But few—at least few who make it into this particular class—plan to be “just” wives and mothers. After all, they are at Notre Dame, a place where academic challenges and high expectations come hand in hand with an understanding of gender as biologically based, marriage and children as an almost inevitable life choice, and motherhood as particularly central to women’s identity.
The potential for conflict, perhaps even the impossibility of goals, is not lost on my female students. Still, they cling to a metaphor of “balance,” the current alternative to “having it all.” How will they balance family and career? They don’t know, but they have the faith of the young that they can do it. As more men are asking the same questions and more workplace and government policies support working parents, I have tremendous hope that they will.
Heidi Ardizzone teaches American studies at Notre Dame. Her most recent book is An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege.