A while back, the actress Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting told a magazine that she was not a feminist. A minor brouhaha ensued. She said she wanted to be a traditional wife who cooks dinner for her husband and makes him happy by serving him. (They are now getting a divorce. So much for the traditional wife thing.) I tried to shrug this off but there is such a fundamental lack of understanding in her statement that I cannot seem to let it go. It is frustrating to me when younger women remain blissfully ignorant of what has come before.
Starting with the obvious, young women who assert they want to be traditional wives seem to have very little knowledge of what that actually meant at the time. Making dinner for your family and “serving” your husband did not a traditional wife make. One only needs to visit any 1950’s or 60’s family sitcom or romantic comedy movie starring Doris Day or Paula Prentiss to learn about the societal construct that had been imposed on women. Here is how it worked back then: A single girl worked in a traditional woman’s profession, as a secretary or maybe a shop girl, until she could land a man. Then she settled down and became a housewife staying at home, taking care of the house and raising the kids. She didn’t have a name of her own. She was forever known as Mrs. Fabulous Husband, her identity melded into and dependent on his. She never worried about money and she never, ever had to think about something as awful as work. That is, so long as she held up her end of the bargain. All she had to do was run the house and the family, make sure that dinner was ready when her loving husband came home from a hard day’s work, and clean up after.
So, to any young woman with the idea that they would like to be a “traditional wife,” you need to understand what that means–you don’t get a hyphenated name, you don’t get to work and bring home the paycheck, in fact, hand over the finances to your husband at once, and most of all, you certainly get no options. In the world of June Cleaver and Laura Petrie, you do not even have a choice to become a traditional wife or to define what that means. The societal construct is there and your role is to conform to it. It does not matter if you are smart or ambitious or just want to live independently. While there were always outliers and pioneers of working women or women who just refused to play along, most women were judged by family, friends, and just about everyone she came into contact with by the man she landed, the marriage they made, and the kind of housewife they became.
Feminism erupted against this societal construct. It really came down to women wanting to have options and choices.
By the time I was heading to college in the late 1970’s, the traditional, wifely role was crumbling. Women wanted careers. But we would still find our choices restricted and societal views imposed. Dress codes were important when I began my career. One of the options I wanted was to wear pants to work. It seems dumb looking back, and I am sure there are some who would find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when women were not permitted to wear pants to work. To put it in perspective, it was not until 1993, 22 years ago, that women were permitted to wear pants on the Senate floor. That year, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun flouted the rule and wore pants. The rule was changed not long after.
When I started my legal career in the mid-1980’s, women attorneys were pretty much forbidden from wearing pants. The uniform was set–a modest skirt and suit jacket with blouse, nylons and pumps. Certainly, women in many professions were slowly trying out pantsuits. But in the law, that was just not going to work. There were stories about judges refusing to let women appear in court if they were not in a skirt or ruling against any woman who dared to flout convention. This bothered me. Why can’t I wear pants to work?
So I went to see the senior partner. I did not want to upset anyone and I figured the best way to handle it was to just raise it outright. Yes, I had to ask permission to wear pants. My boss was very nice about it and said he saw no problem with it at all so long as I looked professional. Of course, if he had been rude about it and said no, I probably would have done it anyway in defiance, just like the women in the Senate. But he was enlightened enough to let it go.
Elated I called a friend who worked at a big corporate firm and told her the news. She could not believe it. In her office, they would never let her wear pants and she sure was not going to ask. At the time, it was a very risky position. Of course, over the years, it has now become routine. I am not sure when I finally had the nerve to wear pants in a courtroom, but at this point, I don’t even own a skirt.
It is clear that, while they claim to appreciate what feminists did for equal rights, younger women don’t see this entire picture. “Equal rights” seems so abstract. When a young woman says she is not a feminist, or dismisses it by saying she wants to be traditional, I hope she can think about this: I had to ask a man’s permission to wear pants to work. When women can understand that this is where we were, even as recently as 25 years ago, then they might understand that these little victories for options and choices that are now taken so much for granted are what we were and are working at every day. I am not the only one with these kinds of stories. Every woman has them. Just ask.