- /In The World Split Open: How The
In The World Split Open: How The
In The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, Ruth Rosen, skillfully composed an engaging, insightful and comprehensive review and analysis of the women’s rights movement during the late 20th century in the United States. This narrative covers the chronicle of women’s rights movements from Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique, all the way through the 1990s. While this novel embraces a large scope of women’s rights, Rosen’s main ideas are the path to the erasure of the cult of domesticity, how women made their way into the workforce, as well as the rising political influence women had on culture and society. American women who embraced the message Friedan was sending in her 1963 publication, that being that women were silent victims of the oppressive domesticity, which subsequently limited their freedoms, and sent them 20 steps backwards in the battle for equal rights. Additionally in The Feminine Mystique, Rosen analyzes Friedman’s opinions on the “proper” place for women in society (and how this position was used as a weapon against American women during the Cold War), the ways women were beginning to assert themselves not only in leftist politics, but the workplace in general, as well as the gradual liberation of women from the homestead, which lead to many significant civil rights movements. As depicted in Betty Friedan’s novel, women’s place in the 1920’s society was centered around the “cult of domesticity,” or “cult of true womanhood,” which peaked in the 19th century. Although, the idea of the “feminine mystique” is the modern parallel of “separate spheres.” Both of these ideas are riddled with sexist notions, including, but not limited to the idea that women were expected to be wives and mothers, before anything else (more often than not, they were restricted from doing anything but being wives and mothers). Getting a higher education, along with any other goal a woman might have was aberrant in the eyes of others, all because of the cult of true womanhood. Like the feminine mystique, the cult of domesticity acted to suppress the hopes, ambitions, and dreams of women (which received major backlash from both 19th and 20th century women).
Very similar to the women in the 19th century, who became politically active within both temperance and abolitionist movements, 20th century women were able to expand their roles in society by using the same basic ideas of political awareness. When the standard of living was raised so high that it was nearly impossible to live on a single salary, women entered the workforce in increasingly large numbers. Gradually as the Cold War progressed in order to keep up with the Soviet Union when Sputnik came into existence, women were becoming educated in science and mathematics. Opportunities such as these combined with the years of extreme oppression gave women the means to rebel against the expectations involved in the cult of domesticity as well as social expectations regarding marriage. Although, the immense progress made by 19th century woman would soon be eroded by the late 20th century. Ruth Rosen takes a close look at the various ways the idea of the feminine mystique was celebrated and subsequently perpetuated by society.
Rosen primarily argues that the “…belief that American superiority rested on its booming consumer culture and rigidly defined gender roles…" (Rosen, 10). By celebrating the concept of the cult of true womanhood, and everything that came with it (i.e. being a wife and mother, as well as being the primary purchaser of consumer goods within the household), becoming a housewife became an industry. Rosen argues that the professionalization of housewives, "…turned the act of consumption into a patriotic act." (Rosen, 14). Most publicly, this idea was brought into light by the 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev. During the debate, Nixon "…boasted of the labor-saving devices that gave American women time to cultivate their charms as wives and to care for their children." (Rosen, 11). Rosen continues on to describe the ways which women began moving out from under the constrictions involved in the idea of feminine mystique, even before it was recognized by society. Women, and a certain extent, men, began to revolt against the sexual expectations society put in place by society. Women were beginning to challenge the idea that their sexual life was in place only to satisfy the needs of their husbands and to have kids. Rosen says, ”Even before the sixties, a sexual revolution simmered." (Rosen, 18). In addition, the increasing use of birth control "…ruptured the historic tie between sex and procreation." (Rosen,18). All the while, men began feeling pressured by societal expectations of togetherness within the family that came to define the ideal version of suburban life.
Additionally, women began to separate themselves from the limitations that came with the feminine mystique within the workplace. As Rosen clearly points out, the new expectations of living standards essentially required women to work. As stated earlier, the standard of living way raised very significantly, making it nearly impossible to live off of a single paycheck. It wasn’t possible for middle class families to meet the expectations imposed by the post-war style of living and the prosperity that came with it, without two separate incomes.With the newly official move of the United States economy to a postindustrial economic system in 1956, the demand for female workers became increasingly significant. As Rosen points out, this challenged the idea of both feminine mystique as well as the cult of domesticity. It "…came not from women bored by domestic life, but from a corporate sector that successfully drew women out of their homes and into the workforce." (Rosen, 20). The shift of America toward a more technologically based society, and more specifically, the challenge to democracy (represented mostly by the pressure put on the U.S. by the Soviet Union due to the launch of Sputnik), created an opportunity for women to enroll in college with the ultimate goal of obtaining degrees in math, science, and physics. This resulted in women getting jobs that would aid America in the technological race against the Soviet Union. Just as 19th century women did, using their involvement within the temperance and abolition movements in order to expand their political positions, 20th century women were becoming more politically active. Although, unlike their 19th century equivalents, women in the second half of the 20th century were able to agitate on behalf of women’s rights all while directly challenging the validity of traditional roles of wife and mother imposed on women by societal expectations.
In a chapter titled the "Female Generation Gap," Rosen depicts the numerous ways in which women born in the 1950’s attempted to escape the examples set up for them by their mothers (and grandmothers and so on and so forth). In countless ways, this revolt was the same for both men and women. As said by Ruth Rosen in this literary masterpiece, ”both rejected the popular music of their parents, savored the riffs of jazz, and gyrated to the urgent, rhythmic beat of rock ‘n’ roll…they criticized the excessive materialism and conformity of their parents…feared the madness of nuclear deterrence…denounced the anti-Communist obsession that led to proxy wars like…Vietnam…[and]…reproached America’s poverty and racism." (Rosen, 38). The difference, which Rosen points out, and what made it increasingly difficult for young women in the 1950’s to move out of the shadow of the expectation to be a housewife, was that men, while all the while rebelling against the stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and the rigidity of their fathers, still believed in the underlying ideas of both fatherhood and manliness (and their importance within family life), left behind by feminine mystique and the cult of domesticity.Whereas young women, in an attempt to escape the oppressive standards set by their mothers, were typically required to reject the traditional notions of marriage and parenthood to obtain this caliber of freedom. This type of rebellion came to existence in many forms. Some young women pursued different educational opportunities, while others pursued alternate lifestyles typically as free single women. Along with both of these lifestyles, some women became relevant within political communities by using nuclear expansion as well as expansion within civil rights avenues in order to create the basis of the feminist/women’s rights movement.
Rosen devoted the second half of her book to the exponentially rising political influence of women, their success at gaining legislation beneficial to the lives women through the means of Congress, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and ultimately the divide between the women’s movement (based around the NOW) and the traditional left leaning organizations with the movement had traditionally been allied/associated with. Beginning with the establishment from President John F. Kennedy, (which according to Rosen were not for altruistic reasons), of an undertaking to "…explore women’s status in the United States” (Rosen, 78) using the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which prohibited discrimination against women within the job field) along with the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, Rosen reports that the success women experienced while advancing their cause through the avenues available to them, including the Democratic Party as well as the unions.
Ultimately however, when the traditional left did not take the enforcement of said laws seriously, along with when it became clear that the men of these leftist organizations didn’t understand what these equal rights meant in terms of annexing any legal distinctions based upon differences of the sexes. They didn’t understand that to create a true, prosperous democracy society, they would be required to "…honor the life of the family as much as it honored the life of work. Men would no longer be the frame of reference. But nor would women” (Rosen, 78). In addition, the women’s movement created a clear separation for itself away from that of the traditional left, otherwise known as the men’s. This departure and their new idea of what the “left” is, allowed the women to move in a more radical direction. Additional radical elements of the movement, which were initially inspired by those of the Civil Rights movements, (and that later became an aspect of the "New Left”) also parted ways with these organizations which were dominated largely by men. Rosen additionally devotes a considerable amount of attention to the backlash that happened in response as women’s rights activists and the movement as a whole gained more influence and power.
I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.