Sharing n' Caring

The Superwoman Myth

Ever since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, American women have been haunted by the problem of more. Spurred by Betty Friedan’s plaintive query, “Is this all?”—inspired by feminism’s struggle for expanded rights and access, seduced by Astronaut Barbie—we have stumbled into an era of towering expectations. Little girls want to be princesses. Big girls want to be superwomen. Old women want and fully expect to look young. We want more sex, more love, more jobs, more-perfect babies. The only thing we want less of, it seems, is wrinkles.

None of this, of course, can be blamed on feminism or feminists. Or, as one former radical gently reminded me recently, “We weren’t fighting so that you could have Botox.” Yet it was feminism that lit the spark of my generation’s dreams—feminism that, ironically and unintentionally, raised the bar for women so high that mere mortals are condemned to fall below it. In its original incarnation, feminism had nothing to do with perfection. In fact, the central aim of many of its most powerful proponents was to liberate women from the unreasonable, impossible standards that had long been thrust upon them.

As feminist ideals trickled and then flowed into mainstream culture, though, they became far more fanciful, more exuberant, more trivial—something easier to sell to the millions of girls and women entranced by feminism’s appeal. It is easy, in retrospect, to say that women growing up in that world should have seen through the fantasy to the underlying struggle, that they—we—should have realized the myths of Charlie (both the angels and the perfume) and fought from the outset for the real rights of women. But most of us didn’t, not because we were foolish, necessarily, but because it’s hard, coming of age, to embrace the struggles of your parents’ generation. And so we embraced the myth instead, planning, like Atalanta, to run as fast as the wind and choose the lives we wanted.

Meanwhile, none of society’s earlier expectations of women disappeared. The result is a force field of highly unrealistic expectations. A woman cannot work a 60-hour week in a high-stress job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without that job and all the stress. And she cannot save the world and look forever like a 17-year-old model.

An excerpt worth pondering from Debora L. Spar’s piece Shedding the Super Woman Myth from The Chronicle Review

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