EXCERPT: 'The Feminine Mistake'

Although she undoubtedly didn't get enough sleep, my mother never complained. To the contrary; she told us all the time how lucky she felt. After the insecurity and humiliation of her childhood, she was thrilled to have a comfortable home and a stable family. She loved being a mother, but she also enjoyed her work, which she talked about with enthusiasm. As a result, it never occurred to me that a woman couldn't have both.

My mother supported my grandmother until she died, shortly before her eightieth birthday, still waiting for her husband to come back. He died soon afterward, leaving the "trollop," by then a sweet white-haired little old lady who had been his wife for more than four decades, as his widow.

Although I understood that my grandmother had spent most of her life quietly nursing a broken heart, the larger significance of this family history was lost on me until my mother heard about The Feminine Mystique and gave it to me. "Read this," she said, so I did.

That book had such a profound effect on American culture that Betty Friedan used the most frequent comment she heard from her readers as the title of a subsequent book: It Changed My Life. It certainly changed mine; I was thirteen when The Feminine Mystique was published, and it helped to guide my views and choices from then on. By the time I was a teenager, my parents had moved from Manhattan's Upper East Side to a Westchester suburb, and I was beginning to notice how much truth there was in Friedan's observations about affluent women trapped in unsatisfying domestic lives. Palpably unhappy, many of my friends' stay-at-home mothers were doubly wounded when their marriages broke up as soon as their kids left for college. My parents were among the few couples we knew who stayed together.

In retrospect, it's hard to parse the varied influences that shaped my life. How much of a role did one revolutionary book play in determining my future? How much did I learn from my own family history? Since my coming-of-age coincided with the blossoming of modern feminism, how many of my choices were simply a product of the exhilarating times I grew up in during the 1960s and '70s, when the very air seemed electric with the promise of exciting new possibilities?

Back then, even as conservatives railed against the changes being wrought by the women's movement, it was clear to me that the conventional social roles hadn't necessarily worked out very well for the women who actually lived them. When my grandmother was abandoned by her husband and swindled out of her share of the family fortune by her brother, the prescribed gender roles of her day rendered her powerless to deal effectively with either calamity. Because those roles were so confining, she never replaced her identity as a wife and mother with an independent life that might have consoled and sustained her during the decades she spent alone.

I certainly knew that my mother had been forced to go to work by my grandmother's lifelong economic dependency, which burdened so many other family members over the years. I knew that my father had refused to assume the financial support of my grandmother—but I also knew that this abdication of patriarchal responsibility had galvanized my mother into forging a career that proved to be enormously gratifying.

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