Mad Men, Season 5, begins tonight in the U.S. Alas, I cannot watch it -- although I'm working on a way to get it online. (Did you know that most streaming online video sites do not allow you to watch if they detect your computer is in another country?)
This post, however, is not about the show. Instead, as I read as much speculation as I can about the upcoming season, I dip into the comments sections and see that many viewers turn to their moms or grandmoms to ask them is life "was really like that" for women. Most find out that, yes, women did face that sexism and harassment "back then."
I remember my mom and the expectations placed on her in the 1970s. So many complex messages and desires that she did not begin to understand converged upon her in her twenties. Like so many characters on the show, she was essentially conservative, with some liberal leanings, and lived in an essentially conservative environment, but the whole world shifted about her. If I step back from her and relate to her as another woman, then I can see just how confusing this was for her, especially since she really loved to work outside of the home and fell into deep, dark, angry depressions when she could not, as after she had my youngest and unplanned baby brother. She was not a very good mother on so many, often important, things, but -- damn -- I have to say that I rather admire the way she ultimately absorbed the changes and found her own way. Sadly, as with my grandmother (who, by the way, did die two weeks ago, but that's another post for another time), she would have been so much better off if she never had children or waited much later to have children and she was much more easily admired from a distance rather than as the person in charge of my upbringing and that of my brothers.
Throughout grad school, young women, only about a decade younger than myself, used to come up to me after the classes that covered the history of women -- actually, the history of middle class white women, much like themselves -- in the 1950s through the women's rights movement. "My mother went through that!" they told me. "My mother was fired when she got pregnant with me. My mother wasn't allowed to have her own credit card. My mother was never promoted but all of the men hired after she was were." You probably know the litany. You probably have lived it. These students were so excited because the history had just connected to their lives in a very real way and had validated something that they had observed or heard as they grew up.*
That took place in the 1990s. In the mid-section of the first decade of the 2000s, shen I was taking the road less travelled and thrown much among young women whose mothers were closer to my age than they were, I still heard similar stories. Since then, I've been in a slightly different or very different milieu. The students come from different countries, or they and their mothers face a more complicated intersection of oppressions that take into account race and immigration status. Fewer have brought their stories of recognition to me on this particular point. (I think I've developed a bit of a prickly shell about me for my own emotional survival which works with my obvious privilege and position of power to create more distance.)
My next job will put me among young women who more closely resemble myself at their age. I've often wondered if I might me more effective in pushing that group along in the broader sense of education than I ever could be with the students that I have had. I have often thought that the students that I have had over the past four or five years would be better served in seeing someone who looks like them in a position of education and authority. I know that seeing women professors, especially woman professors who had lives beyond their professional life, always made me much less afraid of the world and much more aware of future lives that did not involve a cubicle and servitude to white men and general misery.
But that's not my point. My point is this. I am wondering what stories those young women have -- or even the ones that the young women of this past half decade have had but did not tell me -- and how they differ from the ones told to me before or my own experience. The young women coming out of grade school today could be my daughters and their mothers are roughly my age, and entered the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s. They had jobs during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. They grew up in a world with Title IX, legal abortion, access to affordable birth control, parental leave policies, delayed marriage and childbearing, and even the possibility of avoiding both.
Still, what stories do they have? What gender discrimination did they face, and how did it intersect with other parts of their identity? How did they tell their daughters of this, and what did their daughters observe?
* "But what about the menz? Didn't they observe this in their moms?" Only few young men have ever shared such stories with me, and if you talked to my brothers, they would probably have an entirely different understanding of our mother in the 1970s and 1980s, if they even noticed the gender discrimination and issues she faced at all. What I have found is that most of the young men, if they noticed the subject at all in their own and their mothers' lives, tended to individualize or particularize that situation. "Oh, well," they would say, "sure my mom stopped working when I was born, but that was because she worked for a real asshole. Sure my mom couldn't have a credit card in her own name, but it wasn't like it really mattered since she and Dad shared the money equally and she was buying things for the whole family." That sort of thing.