This is a year for celebrating feminist anniversaries. In my post of the 6th June I wrote about a local celebration that of the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death – under the title ‘Deeds not Words’. The 50 year anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ escaped my notice.
This book, published in the US in 1963, explores the reasons why so many educated US women in the 1950s and 1960s were finding it impossible to live out idealised roles of full-time home-makers and mothers. But its analysis resonated with younger women across the developed world. Without the changes that the First Wave of feminism achieved especially the right of access to education and the professions, women would never have been in the position where there was such a creative tension between their expectations and desires to be part of the world as equals with their brothers, while social expectations were that they would primarily live their lives as unpaid support workers for others – as wives and mothers. Women wanted both, and the history of gender equality since the 1960s stems from that desire and the pressure or have it recognition as not an unreasonable desire which should be supported by policy and legislation.
My colleagues (Liz Whitelegg and Iris Rowbotham) and I are researching the the impact of the Open University’s interdisciplinary Women’s Studies on the women who studied them in the 1980s and early 1990s. It is clear from the interviews we are doing with these women that many of them were suffering from exactly the ‘Problem with no Name’ that Friedan described so well. Women’s Studies gave these women the intellectual frame-works to understand their situations and their feelings, and the wider issue of the gendering of society. The courses also gave them – they tell us- tools to change their situation.
However, it is clear that these women’s lives are very different from the lives described by the majority of women in the 30s in the developed world today, see: Alison Wolf (2013) ‘The XX Factor. How working women are creating a new society’. The question we have is: What kind of Women’s Studies course would empower, and produce a sense of solidarity among women of similar age today?
Part of our research has been published in G Kirkup and E Whitelegg (2013) ‘The legacy and impact of Open University women’s/gender studies: 30 years on’, Gender and Education Vol 25 Issue 1. Our newest work is being reported in a presentation: What’s happened to the gender agenda? The legacy of women’s/gender studies at ‘Educating women: an interdisciplinary conference’ on 18th July Canterbury Christ Church University.