The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night--she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question--"Is this all?"
For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire--no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents. They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights--the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity. All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.
By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage
age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the
teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women
attending college in comparison with men dropped fro m 47 per cent in 1920
to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher
education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties,
60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid
too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories
for "married students," but the students were almost always the husbands.
A new degree was instituted for the wives--"Ph.T." (Putting Husband Through).
If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring
in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of
femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is
far more important than anyone recognizes. It is the key to these other
new and old problems which have been torturing women and their husbands
and children, and puzzling their doctors and educators for years. It may
well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture. We can no longer
ignore that voice within women that says: "I want something more than my
husband and my children and my home."