The meaning of feminism has shifted throughout history along with the roles and responsibilities of women. Women in the 1950s were expected to find fulfillment in ironing and in baking the perfect rosemary chicken, and they were discouraged from pursuing a career. The goal of feminism was to liberate women from the shackles of motherhood and housekeeping, but did the feminists get what they wanted? Were women truly liberated, or were they simply placed under new pressures, in the form of building a career?
Today, women enjoy more freedoms than ever before. It is because of the work of feminism that women have the right to vote, enjoy equal treatment in the workplace and determine the size of their families. However, many women who choose not to build a career report feeling excluded from the new freedoms and respect enjoyed by today’s woman. If in the 1950s a woman’s value was determined by how she kept her house and family, today it is often determined by her status on the corporate ladder.
Most women today are not able to choose between motherhood and a career but are forced to fill both roles. Emily Tyrrell balances school and work with raising her 3-year-old daughter. After her husband’s death in a motorcycle accident, she was forced into the role of primary breadwinner, a position she never expected to fill.
“Before, when I was a stay-at-home mom, I didn’t like it,” said Tyrrell. “Now that I have to work, I wish I could go back to it, but I have no choice.”
When asked why so few women today choose motherhood, Tyrrell responded, “The standard of living now is different. I think sometimes women don’t have a choice anymore. Besides that, it just depends on whether they want to live a more enriched life. Going to school gives women more opportunities.”
Lavonne Sobek is a mother of seven. Her children range in age from 18 years to 10 months, and she says her faith is the reason she stays home with her children.
“My desire has been to have a family and raise them for the Lord,” Sobek said.
When asked about the hardest part of being a mother of seven, Sobek replied, “Just making sure that they each have what they need, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
According to data released by the United States Bureau of Labor, about 40 percent of women are the primary breadwinners for their families. Because of the recession, many women who were formerly homemakers have been forced to look for work. Another finding said that men make up more than 70 percent of the job losses in the recession. This is partially because of the fact that formerly male-dominated industries like technology and finance have suffered as a result of the economic downturn. In contrast, parts of the economy that are traditionally female-dominated, such as nursing, continue to grow. For the first time, women are close to outnumbering men in the workforce.
Kimberly Pace is the director of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She agrees that women face a new set of pressures, but she discussed the options enjoyed by today’s women.
“There is a lot of pressure on women today,” Pace said. “They are expected to go to college, get married, have children and a career. On the other hand, though, there are things we have now that we didn’t have before. For example, some women are able to work from home, or they can go to school online. When women do have a child during their college career, these days, it is not a dead end. In fact, it can make things more challenging, colorful and exciting.”
In the 1950s, less than 40 percent of women held jobs. Today, she estimates that number to be between 80 and 90 percent, and part of that number is made up of working mothers who opt for part-time positions in order to be able to spend more time with their children.
Pace and Sobek represent the two opposing ideas about what brings a woman satisfaction. One side argues that it can be found only in motherhood, and the other side asserts that in order to experience true fulfillment, a woman must have her own career. One thing that is clear is that feminism and liberation mean different things to individual women.
This month UAA’s Women’s Studies Department hosted an event that allowed women to put aside their differences on the issue and celebrate womanhood. Women of all ages and races gathered in the Den in the Student Union to hear an open microphone poetry reading called “The F-Word: Celebrating Feminism.” It was held to draw attention to the Women’s Studies program and to allow women to voice their opinions on life and feminism.
Currently it is not possible to major in women’s studies at UAA. In fact, Kimberly Pace became the director of the program four years ago when there were questions about whether it would continue. This illustrates the fact that there is still work to be done.