SM: Solving the problems in The Feminine Mystique has inevitably led to other ones. I also think there are pressures we face at certain stages of life. I mean, can I put off having babies – that’s another thing she doesn’t really talk about, contraception or abortion – but then there’s “Oh, my god, I haven’t found somebody! Should I just get married to have children?”
With guys, it’s the ultimate biological advantage. They can go on forever, and that is something that really puts pressure on women and probably always will.
SN: I was really aware that, even though Ms. Friedan doesn’t talk about it overtly, birth control is what makes this whole “feminine mystique” possible. Women were no longer churning out 12 children on the farm or in-between shifts at the factory.
Focus: So what battles are left?
ER: We now have, is it six out of 12 premiers who are women? Which is fantastic, but women are still under-represented in a lot of governments around the world, and certainly here. And young women’s access to good information about sexual health is still a huge thing.
SN: There are now fewer and fewer doctors in Canadian medical schools taught how to perform abortions. There is less and less abortion access in Canada. That fight is not over.
And when I lived in South Africa, I was often aware that, in many ways, the country was more advanced in terms of gender equality: it had women in top leadership roles in government, prominent women in business, women heading universities, and incredibly progressive legislation mandating equality for women in all these fields.
South Africa also has a horrific sexual-violence problem, so it’s not a straightforward comparison. But on so many indicators – length of maternity leave, pay equity, women in politics, abortion access – it certainly outstrips the U.S., if not Canada. Rwanda has more women in its parliament and its government than we do.
SM: South Africa enacted a new constitution and put in place many progressive policies – but that didn't wipe out racism and misogyny. Gender-equity policies are essential, but so is a change in behaviour and attitudes.
ER: What do you want for your own daughter, Stephanie?
SN: What I want is for her to not feel that she does everything not as well as she would like to because there is a tremendous amount of pressure on her.
I mean, I didn’t go to university thinking, “I’m going to find a husband.” I was thinking about how I was going to get the best job and how I was going to be really good at that job.
And those are good goals to have. But somewhere along the way I also wanted to find a partner and have babies. So then it’s, “I am seven months pregnant and I have to go to this war!” And, “I’m in labour but I have to deliver this book manuscript!”
They’re all things that I wanted to do and I’m so aware, given where I live and what I see in my job, so profoundly aware, of how lucky I am and how many incredible privileges and opportunities I have. But it’s also really hard, trying to do all these things well. I don’t want her to feel that. And I don’t know how to make a world where that will be true.
SM: Well, if she doesn’t push, she won’t achieve. And the women in Ms. Friedan’s book don’t have those ambitions – they didn’t think it was possible. So we can’t predict what your daughter will want, but I think that you really want your daughters to strive and to feel that they can accomplish something.
ER: Is that what you wanted for your daughter when she was young, Sandra?
SM: Well, I came from a family of women, so when I had a son I was astounded – it was an eye-opener and a joy. But when my daughter was born, I recognized her. She didn’t look at all like me, but I recognized her immediately as one of me.
And what I wanted for her was, yes, for sure, to strive, to achieve. But I also realized she is who she, and that’s who she should be able to be.
ER: Yes, I think that’s the message I would want to give my daughter, too: The world is totally open to you, but don’t feel that you have to be everything to everyone at every time. You only have to be content in your own self.
This discussion has been edited and condensed.
Our panel includes India bureau chief Stephanie Nolen, feature writer Sandra Martin and columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.