I had written this series of posts on Feminism some years ago when I realized that there are lots of young people out there who have little idea about our struggles. We had seen first hand, the changes that swept over the world and India in the late 60s and 70s — the defining decades that brought to the fore terms such as feminism, equality and empowerment.
Those were times when equality and liberation as the rights of women came to be understood by an entire generation of women – spanning all strata of society — since at that time the social strata were not so sharply divided on economic lines as they are today. So the concerns across the board were similar; all we had wanted was a chink in the walls enclosing us to let in a ray of light to give us the hope and energy to break out of the confines — and so many of us did too!
I thought there is no time like the present to re-post the series as there has been so much discussion about feminism, choice, empowerment and the like in recent times. I was especially appalled as so many others have been over the supposed choices a woman wants to make in her life for empowerment. To call it absurd and meaningless would be too generous, as the issues confronting women were and still are infinitely more serious and life-changing than making choices about the size one wants to be, go pubbing or have sex outside marriage. This is the result of the sharp economic and cultural divide in the society today. I am deliberately not linking to the video even to hold it up to ridicule.
As a disclaimer, let me state that this is not a historical commentary of those times, but my perspective. I will be trying to explain some of the anomalies that exist till date as an outcome of those decades, and which the Gen Y finds most vexing in older women. Do read the entire series of which this is the first part.
When the feminist movement came to the country, it had impacted all of us who were teenagers and young adults at that time. Big and small towns alike were affected. Germain Greer, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir – all became cult figures for a whole generation of women. While those who had not even heard of them still talked about them, the others discussed their work and argued about their merits and demerits. Feminism soon was the ‘in’ thing and yours truly joined the brigade with unconcealed gusto.
We lapped up anything to do with it, whether it was the protests held across the US and Europe, feminist literature, the magazine Ms which was started by Gloria Steinem, even its homegrown sisters Eve’s Weekly and Femina (yes, they had a lot of food for thought in addition to recipes back then), had heated discussions about gender issues over cups of tea in the canteen, looked down our noses at boys for belonging to the unwanted sex and talked about higher studies and career options. Incidentally, I used to aver that I would go on studying all my life and would never get married!
We went into the phase of self-discovery and proudly donned the plain and ‘intellectual’ look, discarded the titles Miss and Mrs for the more fashionable Ms. that had become the signature of women the world over and dared to look the men in their eyes and demand to be recognized as equal humans. Never mind that many of us were still fighting to get even a higher education, wear dresses of our choice and raise our voices against suppression of those very voices.
What we also didn’t realize then was that we were still playing second fiddle to the men – when we added the Ms. we used our husband’s surnames and when we refused and stuck with our maiden names, we still carried our fathers’ name. Isn’t a father a male too? Or does his being our progenitor put him above the despicable males of the species? I ask the same question today and just as it had been absurd then, it is absurd today as a gender statement. Anyway, we were the ‘new women’ of the century and we were oh, so proud of the fact and forget such minor details!
In hindsight, I can only smile wryly.
So while some of us fought and succeeded in entering the hallowed precincts of college, still others got the choice of wearing clothes in keeping with the new ‘equal’ image — trousers, ‘bell-bottoms’ and in rare cases even jeans, when the girls were fortunate to have relatives abroad or could afford to buy them. Those were heady times. Television, which had been restricted to the Capital of the country came to Mumbai in 1972 and later in the decade to Chennai and Kolkata. And that opened up new vistas for employment and offered tantalizing career options to the women. Newsreaders were the icons of the times. I was in Mumbai then and I still remember that dusky beauty Smita Patil reading Marathi news, and other stalwarts like Salma Sultan, Sarita Sethi, Bhakti Barve, Sheila Chaman and a host of others who made the viewers hang on to their words and faces for the few minutes they read the news, me included. Our heroines were Ela Bhatt, Kiran Bedi, Shantha Rangaswamy…
Ironically even as many of us scorned fashion and make-up and the use of feminine charms to get noticed, the beauty pageant scene also flourished in tandem. So we had girls aspiring to become beauty queens and willing to be judged on the basis of their vital statistics and pearly smiles, wearing bikinis and parading on the stage, flashing their brilliant smiles and reaping the scorn of ‘feminists’ like me.
With the advent of feminism came one more group – the activists. This group screamed itself hoarse about women being exploited by the advertisers and filmmakers who were supposedly disrobing them to make a fast buck. Maybe at that time they did have a point, because women were not in a position to bargain for their rights and had to go along with the producer of the film or the organisers of fashion shows and beauty pageants as also advertisements. But what amuses me is that the activists have taken a diametrically opposite line now and feel it is every woman’s right to dress as skimpily as she likes. The bottom line is that a woman’s body is still a topic of discussion and a thing to be flaunted,; and if then they wore skimpy dresses because they were being ‘exploited’, they wear them now because it is their ‘right.’
The women who went into the media, fashion and films became the glamorous icons of those decades. But this post is not about them, but the average, largely middle-class, ordinary women – the new women of the 70s who have gone on to become the ‘old women’ of today and who have also become mothers and mothers-in-law in the interim.
Please bear with me, as I walk back to the decades that wrought so much change in the society, the after-shocks of which are still being felt today.
Except for those who went on to become a famous model/actress/media personality, the others settled for marriage, having had their fling at college and briefly dallying with a job. Jobs were mostly that – JOBS; not a challenging career or even something mentally stimulating in most cases. Banking, bureaucracy and teaching were the staple jobs that were open to women, and thousands of women entered these fields in the late 60s and the 70s, especially in Mumbai and then other cities. Despite the monotonous nature of the jobs, the women still had an aura of glamour about them. I had a neighbor who worked as a telephone operator and who was the most fashionably dressed woman on the street; the college lecturer in her starched saris and metal framed glasses came in next on the glamour quotient. Professionals like doctors and research scholars were equivalents of demi-goddesses, no less! We looked at them and aspired to become them or be better than them. I had several cousins who worked as doctors, teachers, research assistants and lecturers among other professions. Needless to say, they were adored by me and our other female cousins.
Soon more job markets opened up. A lot of new industries and services came into being and public sector companies were set up, offering more choices in jobs for women. Starting with receptionists and telephone operators, there were jobs galore right up to the top management echelons. Cost of living was going up. Higher education was more than just a degree in science or arts as other fields opened up, with higher fees of course. Single incomes were found insufficient to foot the college bills and attendant expenses. of children. Lifestyles were changing at a rapid rate. From bicycles, middle-class families graduated to two-wheelers. Some who held posts in the higher echelons of bureaucracy and public sector companies had four-wheelers given to them by their organisations.
One thing didn’t change though. Working or not, they all still fell into the rut of marriage, children and home. Holding a degree and/or a job added or took away from their market value, depending upon what the respective families were looking for. Girls were selected on the basis of their having a job when the family was looking to improve their lifestyle and found single income to be insufficient for that. Ironically, many parents of girls looked for families that didn’t want their daughters-in-law to work, because they felt that it put a lot of stress on their daughters for reasons given below.
The bank clerk/officer came back from work and cooked and cleaned and pandered to her family, as did the women working at the other jobs and professions mentioned earlier in the post. She was so proud to be a ‘working woman’ and earning money, that she felt privileged. It didn’t occur to her to ask for rights or equality either at home or at work. The rest of the women had ambiguous feelings towards this class, ranging from admiration to envy to disapproval to plain scorn. The older generation had only one reaction for these women – disapproval. To them, they were those who didn’t care for their families, neglected their children and dressed up and pranced and hobnobbed with men! In short, not the ‘homely’ woman. ‘She is a working woman!’ was often spat out like an abuse. The working women slogged even more both at home and work to prove that they were doing both the jobs well 😦
So these women, pioneers of sort, soldiered on, bearing more burdens than they could carry and doing it because it gave them a sense of worth, an identity outside their homes and the freedom to escape from the monotony of their lives. Some climbed the ladders of professional success while others passed up promotions because it entailed a transfer or more responsibilities that might interfere with their domestic duties. The children grew up seeing their mothers working and while some grew independent, others remained dependent with their mothers fetching and carrying for them, which was done out of a sense of misplaced love and a large measure of guilt for leaving them at home.
PS: While going through the post again today, I saw that I had missed replying to some thoughtful comments that added so much value to the post. I want to assure you all that it was a dreadful oversight. I have replied them now. Kindly pardon my missing them when you had posted them. Sorry once again, Bhavana, Sribblehappy, Archana, Sudha.
(Image courtesy: etsy.com)