This past week, we lost two women who greatly influenced our society, and our attitudes about education.
Coretta Scott King was the woman who made so many of her husband’s contributions possible. Without her steadfast presence in his life, her guidance of their children, and her devotion to the civil rights movement, many of the gains in desegregating schools and our society might have taken even longer to achieve. Her quiet dignity, her poised presence was the strength on which an entire civilization was lifted. The days of bus boycotts, governors turning black children away from schoolhouse doors seem to belong to another world. Thanks to Mrs King and those who joined her in the struggle for civil rights and the process of living in a free and diverse world, that world of Jim Crow can seem much farther away than it really is.
Betty Friedan was called the “mother of modern feminism” this week when her death was reported. It’s an apt description. The book she wrote, “the Feminine Mystique” still resonates for millions of women. She described “the problem that has no name” of the mid 20th century – women who were educated, capable, and relegated to running the home. No law school, no medical school, no sports, except for tomboys. Women were educated to marry doctors, lawyers, professionals, and expected to obtain their “Mrs. Degree” from colleges such as Smith, where she graduated from.
When I was in college in 1975, I had lunch with Betty Friedan. She came to speak to a college women’s group, and several of us took her to lunch. It was an experience I will never forget. I expected the hatchet faced loud dynamo portrayed in the media. Instead, there was a small, refined woman who could have been the mother of any of us. Much of the lunchtime conversation was about the concerns of younger women. Abortion was new then, as was the idea that women should aspire to the same advanced degrees in law and medicine as men. To a group of young women who were mainly concerned with access to health care, birth control, and abortions, Friedan listened, supported, and told us to tend to our education and not miss any opportunities.
I mentioned a time during my Catholic High School years when one of the nuns had been trying to encourage us to become nuns as a career path. Being a nun would open you up to being a teacher, a nurse, a social worker. When one of the high school girls asked if nuns could be lawyers, doctors, executives – the answer was very limited. But now, nuns were doing those things. And so were we all. What impressed me was that Friedan listened, actively. During the lunch and during her lecture later, she told us that the key to our own fulfillment was the continuation of our education, and cherishing our own visions, our own ambitions.
I didn’t do much with the campus feminists after that – I was uncomfortable with the emphasis on abortion and it was largely a lesbian group. But I found Friedan’s approach to be multi faceted – concentrating on the total human potential of women, our accomplishments, and our fulfillment in reaching our true potential as people, as well as wives and mothers. Today, young women aspire to goals without a thought that their feminity might get in the way. Girls succeed in school, enroll in colleges routinely, and plan professional lives along with personal lives.
Once upon a time, access to the rewards of higher education was limited by race and sex. Today, while obstacles persist, the idea that visions and goals are limited by race and sex is unthinkable to the younger generation. These two women provided the foundation for opportunities for many generations to come.