(WOMENSENEWS)-- In 1980, an artist by the name of Mark Vallen created a street poster that became a cover for "LA Weekly" and earned a few minutes of deserved fame. It showed a black and white cartoon drawing of a weeping woman, hand pressed in anguish against her forehead. "Nuclear War!?" the text reads. "There goes my career!"
Vallen appears to have meant the poster to protest the heightening of cold war hostilities at the time. But intentionally or not, his placard also poked fun at the feverish careerism that had seized women in the early days of second-wave feminism. We generally think of feminists urging women into the workplace to free them of their economic dependence on their husbands and their second-class status. Vallen's character's distress is a reminder that there was more to it than that.
The activity of work itself was supposed to be liberating. Work--that is, paid work outside the home--was the opposite of mind-numbing domestic drudgery. It would stimulate women's minds, widen their narrow horizons, and let them take part in the basic human activity of invention and creation. "Vacuuming the living room floor--with or without makeup--is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman's full capacity," Betty Friedan has written [ in her book "Feminine Mystique"]. "Down through the ages, man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind's power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it . . . when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being."
When you really think about it, there's one big problem with what Friedan is saying here. Down through the ages, most work failed to challenge women's and men's full capacities. Tied to caring and providing for their young, women may not have been in a position to "discover" and "create," but the truth is few men had that pleasure either. (A fall 2010 sitcom called "Raising Hope" evokes just this truth. A young laborer says to his mother, a cleaning woman: "There has to be more to life than cleaning the same pool over and over." She snaps back, "There isn't.")
Work was largely about surviving in an inhospitable natural environment--obtaining food; building shelter; providing warmth; and protecting yourself from predators, animal and human. Remember the Genesis story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden? In paradise, the two enjoy leisure and ease. Banished to the real world, Adam has to "till the ground from whence he was taken." He works to survive. To be human meant to toil; work was the opposite of pleasure and ease. Lest you think this is ancient history, remember that as late as 1900, close to 40 percent of the U.S. labor force worked on farms. In much of the developing world, subsistence farming remains the norm.
Yet today, for a large swath of the developed world--and this is especially the case for women--the notion that work expresses our deeper identity is not at all odd. Young people believe that work can arouse passionate commitment the way it might have for, say, Vincent Van Gogh or Ludwig van Beethoven. It should be a cognitive and emotional adventure, stimulating and rich in meaning. "Work. Life. Possibilities," goes a motto for Monster.com. We are all artists now--at least that's the plan.
There is no way to fully understand pre-adulthood or modern feminism without grasping this nexus of ideas. Yet they are ideas that would never be more than a toddler's fairy tale without a fundamental transformation of the economy over the past decades. The changed economy, which turns out to be very, very female friendly, is the very infrastructure for the New Girl Order. In the background of young women's success, then, there is the pill and there is feminism. There is also the knowledge economy.
Young women of the New Girl Order are not the first in history to move to the city to find work. More than a century ago, single young women in the United States worked at first mostly as domestics, though some were lucky enough to become dressmakers, salesgirls, and clerks. To modern ears, these jobs sound dreary, but for young women who had left their farms or small towns, the city offered excitement, freedom, and new sorts of consumer pleasure as well as a salary.
Excerpted with permission from "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys," by Kay S. Hymowitz. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.
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Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New Republic. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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