Introduction: Contemporary Female Gender Roles
Before the 1960s, there was a notable inequality between the status of men and women in society. The first significant public attempt for the support of female rights took place during the 1848 Women’s Rights convention at Seneca Falls in New York. From then on, multiple efforts were allocated to the support of female empowerment. These efforts include the establishment of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the foundation of Planned Parenthood, and many other successful accomplishments.
Previous to the World War II era, American females were confined to the home. It was common for young women to be encouraged to find a husband, raise a family, and take care of the home instead of pursuing a career. During WWII, females embraced the numerous positions their husbands worked while they were away at war. Additionally, the percentage of females in the labor force increased 10% from 1955 to 1965 during the time of the Korean (1950-53) and Vietnam Wars (1955-75) (Infoplease, 1). However, even as female societal roles transformed significantly during this period, women in the United States were still considered “secondary workers” whose wages “wages were not considered central to families’ income” (Striking Women). Once again, women were discouraged from working and men were established as the primary income earners and family supporters.
Females were facing an essential problem with the standards society expected of them but this issue was never actually given public attention. It was simply a concern that existed for women that achieved the status of housewife and typical womanhood but still felt as though their lives weren’t fulfilling enough. This concern was deemed “the problem that has no name” in second-wave feminist Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. This societal problem inherently considered females to be the caretakers in any given situation and encouraged the adoption of this role even if it meant giving up their dreams.
However, since Friedan’s first publication, gender roles within the household and society have again transformed significantly. In the past fifty years, women have been empowered intellectually and physically through multiple public figures and feminist movements. These movements range from third-wave feminism to the recent Free the Nipple campaign. Furthermore, females are now more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and find employment in various fields. This expansion of societal opportunities for women has altered the traditional standards of womanhood. Females are no longer confined to a certain lifestyle.
However, gender equality has still not been fully achieved in all areas of society today, especially in corporate workplaces. Wage gaps, unpaid maternity leaves, unnecessarily biased employee reviews, and many other obstacles make it difficult for women to succeed in professional environments. To understand the implications of Friedan’s theory in contemporary society, I conducted an interview with four separate female college graduates in their late 20s working in white-collar fields. These women are the quintessential examples of a modern woman, so I asked them multiple questions to help determine if “the problem that has no name” still exists, and, how women deal with the pressure of this issue in present day.
Their responses were insightful and constructive for my analysis. Each woman gave personal experiences about dealing with the societal pressures to conform to “the problem”. Moreover, multiple solutions were presented to help deal with this pressure and the inequalities between sexes. Furthermore, their responses helped shape my analysis into an interpretation of the source of the “problem” in addition to a proposal of numerous solutions to this issue facing females in present day. Although Friedan’s problem exists to this day, societal gender roles are embracing fluidity between the responsibilities designated to each sex as continuous public female empowerment expands and, eventually, will ultimately greatly diminish the influence of the “problem” in the lives of contemporary females.
I chose women of different nationalities, religions, and backgrounds to ensure my sample was an accurate representation of the modern female population. The greater the diversity amongst the participants, the more likely a commonly popular opinion is to arise from their responses. I presented them with excerpts of The Feminine Mystique and asked for their thoughts concerning three questions:
- Will society always subliminally categorize women as the caretakers?
- Can a woman pursue a fulfilling career and still feel as though she is dedicating an appropriate amount of time and care to her family, or must she pick one extreme over the other?
- Can females ever live without “the problem that has no name”?
These women provided me with distinct experiences and detailed opinions regarding Friedan’s ideology. The following are the shortened responses from the interviews conducted including background information on each female included in the study:
Simone Greenspan, 27
Hometown: Easton, Connecticut
Currently living: Midtown NYC with five roommates
Education: Boston University’s Questrom’s School of Business, Brooklyn Law School
Title: Law clerk at Goodwin Procter LLP in NYC
Background: Italian, French, English descent and Jewish heritage
Relationship Status: Single
- “I believe women still live with “the problem that has no name” except I’ve heard it expressed as “mom guilt.”
- “Women who would be restless staying home with children are able to work and women that would prefer to stay home do so happily. However, as Amy Poehler in her book Yes Please writes, ‘[t]here is an unspoken pact that women are supposed to follow. I am supposed to act like I constantly feel guilty about being away from my kids. (I don’t. I love my job.) Mothers who stay at home are supposed to pretend they are bored and wish they were doing more corporate things. (They don’t. They love their job.)’ We’re getting there, but societal pressure still exists that women should stay home raising children and those that stay home must enjoy doing so.”
- “Men have also taken on more domestic responsibility and want to be there for their children more. The PewResearch Center released a study that the number of stay-at-home fathers has doubled since 1989. Men have also been fighting for more equal rights for paternity leave. According to one Harvard Business Review Article, men also feel the pressure of balancing the demands of work and family but are able to cope by cultivating clients closer to home so they travel less and form close relationships at work so that friends cover for one another.”
- “My personal experience in the working environment as a lawyer is that there is pressure to still come off as feminine: in law school we were taught to wear skirt suits instead of pant suits; I have to be careful of my tone in emails and was told to use exclamation points so I don’t come off as ‘bitchy.’”
- “To Amy Poehler’s point, I chose not to adhere to the pact and admire women who stay home. While they may feel pressure to act like they’re unhappy and bored, I believe they don’t. They love their job.”
Kerri Tanner, 28
Hometown: Fairfield, Connecticut
Currently living: Upper East side of NYC with husband
Education: Loyola University at Maryland
Title: Property Facultative Reinsurance Underwriter at Gen Re in NYC
Background: Italian descent
Relationship Status: Married
- “I do not believe that women can ever live without this problem, simply because biologically women must always be the person to carry, birth, and nurse children and thus they will always be seen as the ‘caretaker’ gender. All that we have control over is how we are able to manage this fact in our lives.”
- “It certainly is possible for women to have a career and family, but that will always be harder for women than for men. The only way for women to feel that they can do both adequately is to find out what works for them and their family, and stick to what they feel and what they believe in. If we look outward to society and compare to others women will always feel inadequate. There is not one answer and the truth is that every family has its own unique circumstances and thus needs its own unique solution.”
- “As a young, married, and working woman I certainly do feel the pressure of this problem. I am sure that when we have children my husband will be a great father and caretaker of our children, but I am also sure that most of it, especially when they are very young, will be my responsibility to do or at least to organize.”
- “For me to deal with this issue, it’s important to me to be able to have an open dialog with my husband from time to time that this isn’t 1950 anymore, we both work full time jobs, are equally skilled at cooking and folding laundry, etc. I know he believes these things to be true but it’s easy to forget and slip back to the ‘traditional’ roles.”
- “A female coworker once told me that it’s important that as women we stop asking ‘Can you help me with the X’ and simply ask ‘Can you do X’ to reframe the question from helping to simply splitting up tasks. It seems like a small thing but it’s usually the little things that make all the difference.”
Vanessa Chediak, 29
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Currently living: Tallahassee, Florida with boyfriend
Education: Florida State University
Title: Store manager at Urban Outfitters
Background: Colombian and Cuban descent
Relationship Status: In a relationship
- “I think that the ‘problem that has no name’ will always exist, to a certain extent, within our society, just given the role that biology imposes on women. However, I think that current social movements are bringing some of these pressures, discriminatory practices and biases to light and opening up dialogue that will hopefully bring about the change and progress.”
- “I think a new version of the ‘problem that can’t be named’ exists today, in the pressure women feel to not only do everything, but to be the best (excel at work, at home, and be a super involved parent). However, with the ongoing conversation on the fluidity of gender roles, these pressures may subside.”
- “I have felt pressure, dedicating myself to my career in my 20s, rather than getting married and starting a family, from others around me, who feel I am low on time to accomplish things that are time sensitive (I.e. Childbearing), but I’ve armed myself with confidence in my decisions, and my priorities, as well as knowledge and information, researching true statistics on fertility, and working hard to create a life for myself that I feel will lead me to feel more fulfilled by the time I do have children, giving me the ability to focus on them, their stability and their path to fulfillment.”
Alexis May Charrys, 29
Hometown: Howard Beach, New York
Currently living: Tampa, Florida with four year old daughter
Education: Hawaiian Pacific University, University of Northern Texas, Capella University
Title: Registered Mental Health Counselor
Background: Peruvian and Filipino descent
Relationship Status: Single
- “As for ‘the problem with no name’, I believe that the problem is greater than just within education and within careers; it stems to the core of what is to be part of human nature. The female has always been associated as the nurturing parent versus the disciplinarian or provider. This is due to the mother being the bearer of children, the descriptions of “motherly instinct”, and studies primarily focusing on females as the source of caregivers. It is my opinion that society will always subliminally categorize women as the caretakers of the world just because of human nature and evolution.”
- “In today’s society, women are capable of obtaining a degree, entering the workplace, and becoming successful. Yet, as with every decision in life, there are pros and cons. For the working mother, the conflict arises with ‘is one spending enough time or providing for their spouse or child(ren)’. Yet, it is my belief that a woman can pursue a fulfilling career and still feel as though she is dedicating an appropriate amount of time and care to her family. But this is no easy feat, one must prioritize.”
- “An example of this would be through my life experiences. I am a mother of a rambunctious four year old, I am the primary provider for my family, I am employed as a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst with two companies, I am also a Mental Health Counselor, and first year PsyD candidate. I have made accommodations to my schedule so that I practice self-care, incorporate family time, attend every event that my child has, while remaining successful within my profession.”
- “As Behavior Analyst, I work with children that have special needs. 90% of the mothers I work with are stay-at-home moms. Therefore, some of the common questions I get are ‘how can you work and go to school and care for your daughter?’, ‘Do you ever get family time?’ ‘How do you work with kids and go home and deal with your child?’ etc. The way I deal with it is by telling them that I love my profession, I love my education, and I love my family, so I will continue to do all three. When you reflect on your goals and devise a plan that’s attainable, things will piece together smoothly.”
It is evident that the “problem that has no name” currently still exists in American society. All four interviewees agreed that this problem stems from the biological responsibilities given to women. Because the female carries, gives birth, and feeds the child by the means of her body, a strong bond is cultivated between a mother and her baby because she is given the primary resources to nurture her children. This relationship is understood by the majority of both men and women and therefore makes it controversial when a woman decides to pursue a career and dedicate a part of her life to education, work, and other activities not pertaining to her child. However, the validity of these assumptions conflict with multiple arguments.
The women included in this survey are cisgender (meaning their self-identity corresponds to their biological gender) and are either preparing to or currently have child(ren). Nevertheless, there are women in society that either cannot reproduce biologically or consider themselves to be transgender (self-identity does not conform to conventional expectations of male or female gender). There are also 10.6 million women currently using birth control pills to avoid pregnancy (Statistics, 3). Additionally, the United States reached a record high of 49.6% of females from ages 20 – 25 without children (Infoplease, 1) in 2014. For these women, adopting the role of caretaker may feel more forced upon by society than actual human evolution. These lifestyle choices as well as certain predetermined circumstances that allow females to evade motherhood contradict the general stereotype that females should assume certain behaviors because of their reproductive capabilities. These facts also caused me to address an important question in my analysis: is society the perpetrator of “the problem with no name”, or does biological composition determine the social responsibilities of each sex?
All four women gave multiple personal experiences dealing with the negative stigma females face in corporate workplace. From their experiences, it is still common for a woman to be subliminally categorized as the “secondary workers” although “women comprised 47.4% of the civilian labor force in 2014” (Striking Women, 1). Although the interviewees proposed helpful solutions to the numerous obstacles females face when pursuing an education and career, they also fundamentally accepted the notion that women must deal with Friedan’s “problem” by suggesting any resolutions at all. This shows how deeply ingrained traditional gender roles are in the general understanding of female and male potentiality in society. This also supports the idea that society is the main source of the shame women are given for their lifestyle choices. Most females will typically accept and attempt to cope with the pressure she feels to conform to expectations instead of challenge the very standards imposed upon her.
An important start to end this issue is to initiate open dialogues between genders. These conversations are important because they will encourage the fluidity of gender roles in society. Although women are physically designed to give birth to children, men have an equally important task of nurturing and providing for their children as women do. Additionally, many families adopt a child instead of having a mother carry it herself. These types of situations sustain the concept that men and women have identical duties to ensure the wellbeing of their child by whatever means possible. Furthermore, stereotypes regarding what lifestyles are considered feminine and masculine can be diminished by acknowledging that both genders have equal abilities to support a family both financially and emotionally and should have the freedom to choose which role they feel is appropriate.
Moreover, female empowerment in the workplace should become a more popular topic in society. In present day, women are capable of achieving the same level of education as men. Advocating for gender diversity could greatly benefit certain firms considering the unique and varied perspectives adding females to the workforce can present. By losing gender bias and promoting diversification within any corporation, more women will experience success and aid the advancement of society within multiple professional fields. Traditional standpoints should not impede the greater good of society by forcing females to give up education and work for motherhood.
Women who are currently pursuing a degree, working, or deciding to follow a lifestyle unique to traditional paths should continue to follow their own desires. Like any other social movement, the ones courageous enough to initiate change are the individuals who encourage others to do the same.
This study was enriching in various ways. Although the members of the study believe the “no name” problem presented in The Feminine Mystique will always exist in the lives of women, I disagree. The demand and implementation of increased gender equality over the past fifty years has improved significantly which has a positive relationship with the pressure women face from “the problem with no name”. Society is becoming more accepting of females as avid, productive members of the community. This can be seen in numerous sectors of society. For example, currently, the most prominent candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is a woman politician. Additionally, women hold CEO positions at 20 companies at S&P 500 corporations.
As women continue to penetrate and succeed in additional professional fields, women will gain more respect and influence in the corporate environment and other areas of society. Additionally, by encouraging fluidity between gender roles, men and women will ultimately escape the traditional responsibilities forced upon them. Men who want to spend time with their family instead of working can alternate positions with the female who is expected to care for the home and not work. It would essentially be the best of both worlds for the two sexes.
This steady trend of female empowerment combined with less restrictive gender expectations will assist the decline of the subliminal pressures of “the problem with no name” women assume to be eternally faced with. Although females can never certain stereotypes that correspond with their biological abilities, the problem can be diminished to allow women to be confident in the decision to pursue an education or career instead of dedicating their futures to their family.
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