The churning of the society during the defining decades of the 60s and 70s produced not just the economic classes but also created distinct groups of women in the middle and upper ends of the social spectrum. These groups were formed as a result of the lessons that the events and experiences threw up, from which they learnt, learnt wrongly or didn’t learn at all. (Read the first and second parts of the series Feminism and the Gen X woman here and here)
Our generation was good at opening windows if the doors were closed, finding and widening chinks if the windows were closed too — even learning to live and thrive in a vacuum! All one needed to do was look hard enough, or rather want to look hard enough and make a positive change for oneself if not for the society no matter what the circumstances.
We had tasted freedom and didn’t want to give it up for anything. But we were not about to revolt either. And so we perfected the art of ‘standing on the inside while sitting on the outside’, if sitting was what was expected of us. And no one could make us sit on the inside no matter what they did! And therein lay our strength. We made adjustments, external compromises, used diplomacy, showed displeasure but slowly but steadily inched our way out of the straitjacket that we had been put into. Of course there were others who were overwhelmed or too dispirited to join us.
The best part was that people for whom we were sitting knew of our silent defiance and that gave us the edge and the power to inch little closer to what we wanted. So when I was given an ultimatum by my mother that I could go to college if I was prepared to study in the only women’s college or not at all, you know what option I took. So, even though I couldn’t get the subjects I wanted to study, I decided that I would later find a way to do it. Right then my priority was to get into college, any college and study whatever subject was offered there.
Before going into the groups themselves, a word about the lessons: While we all were exposed to largely similar experiences, we each processed the lessons differently.
It was at college that my lessons began, both of the academic and of the life kind. It was also a sort of indoctrination in the reverse. When my mother insisted on sending me to a women’s college, she didn’t know it was notorious – even without a single boy on its rolls. I remember the senior girls lining the terrace and letting out wolf whistles at the students of the engineering college who passed our college. As they madly cycled away from range, there used to be a victorious shout and laughter. Rooting for women power and emancipation, I should have been happy that the boys were getting back in kind what they had given the girls for ages. But I was not. It upset me that while most of us were trying to make something out of what we little were getting, there were such others who were indulging in frivolous activities.
Lesson 1: We achieved nothing by becoming the very men that we were trying to equal or better.
From thinking that holding a job was a sign of liberation and progress, I came to realise that it was not. The first one to disappoint me was the telephone operator neighbour. She made her sisters and mother to fetch and carry for her, as she sat polishing her nails near the window or batting her eyelids at the young men on the street. It was not as if the job was strenuous or demanding.
Lesson 2: Like the college girls in the earlier example, these women were also trying to be men – by acting as if the deserved special treatment because they brought home the pay packet.
Bureaucracy and the government departments like Railways, the Posts and Telecom and other such jobs remained just that – jobs, which gave them perks while demanding so little in return. There were/are countless number of women in these jobs who prefer passing up managerial posts even when they came their way by way of promotions and transfers.
While some families found this an unnecessary stress on the women given the disproportionate remuneration and therefore didn’t allow their daughters/daughters-in-law to work, others wanted them to — whether they were exploitative parents or in-laws. This group, unlike the earlier one had to bear the double burden of home and office and many of them did not even get to enjoy their earnings, having to sometimes beg even for their bus fare!
Lesson 3: While I most certainly didn’t want to be like the first group, I didn’t fancy being like the second either. These were the victims and I learnt that it was important to be assertive.
Of course there were also hard core career women, who were surprisingly not role models. This could have been because career as an option for women had not arisen yet in society, save for teachers, doctors and nurses. And there were the role models: Kiran Bedi, a champion tennis player and the first woman IPS Officer, Ela Bhat, the champion of women labourers, Mrinal Gore, the social activist, collectors and advocates. These women were the pioneers who battled sexist attitudes and faced other hurdles, going on to lay the foundation for future generations of women.
Lesson 5: It is not easy to be a pioneer, the price can be very high sometimes. But it was exhilarating to be one!
I learnt a lot more lessons, but to enumerate them all would require an entire tome. Others must have learnt different things. Since they were life lessons, we only had practicals where we had to prove ourselves worthy of the society, and these broad categories emerged out of the ‘ exams’:
These obviously had learnt that it was their right to correct things giving tit for tat. They must have been put down by their parents while growing up or by in-laws after marriage. They stewed and waited for the time when they could get even with their in-laws and gave it right back when latter were old and infirm. Others of this group took it out on their daughters-in-law. ‘If I suffered, why shouldn’t she?’ thus perpetuating a cycle that gave generations of mothers-in-law a bad name even when they didn’t belong to this group. These AAs didn’t realise that two wrongs can never make a right especially when the victims were innocent girls who had nothing to do with their suffering. Unfortunately this is the only group that we hear about today because it is so easy to stereotype the women of Gen X into this slot and hang them conveniently!
These understood part of the lessons and thought that by doing everything their mothers and mothers-in-law did in a more liberal manner, they would set things right in the society. They were unfair to themselves while young and are continuing to be the victims in their middle and old age, not just of the older, but of the younger generation too. They work themselves to the bones for the family without complaints and are fawning and overprotective of their children. Their reasoning? ‘We were overworked by our mothers/mothers-in-law and we don’t want to do it to our children, especially since they have to cope with so much more — studies are more competitive, workplace more demanding, life is more difficult…’ I am appalled to find even daughters ordering these mothers around after coming home from college or work and the mothers solicitously running errands for them. Come on girls, your mom deserves a break too! I can understand if many girls today have no feelings for the mother-in-law, but their own mother? This group of women turn into martyrs later in life, trying to send everyone on a guilt trip, for their own weakness.
The balanced ones:
These knew the score then and know it now, having learnt their lessons well right. They didn’t act the fawning mothers like the Martyrs, nor behave like the tyrants that the Avenging Angels were. They were quietly assertive, not subsuming their own interests while taking care of their families, even holding down a job. In their old age, they know how to enjoy life, without depending upon their children emotionally. This group has also made the most compromises and adjustments during its formative years as well as its early adulthood, but has not let any of the experience make it bitter or act in a negative manner.
Knowing that the world will never be what it was in their own youth, they went about making their children independent from a young age. They taught them that chores had to be shared, whether you were a boy or a girl. Even the husband had his share of housework. They stressed that being independent was a virtue and they did not feel abandoned when the children left home. If they stayed with their married son or daughter, they did so on their own terms.
When they had daughters-in-law they were clear in their minds about how to behave with them too – welcoming, understanding but firm. ‘You are welcome to set up your own home but if you want to enjoy the benefits of a joint family, (unbelievable as it may sound, there ARE many benefits, folks!) be part of it and share the work.’
Here comes the crunch. DILs sometimes come from families where the mothers were Martyrs and so are not used to pulling their weight, or might have been the daughters of Avenging Angels who are conditioned to believe that all MILs are demons and deserve to be treated with distrust and hatred. And so even the most balanced MILs might be seen as being heartless and a tyrant for the tiniest of things. With such preconceived notions it is easy to get into a relationship with a severe handicap that can go from bad to worse in a wink. Also they forget that by this logic, their own mothers (if they have brothers, that is) fall into the stereotype.
Events and experiences have a way of affecting people. The environment is a big influence too. But how each one reacts and learns from them depends entirely on individual perceptions, attitudes and personality. It is easiest to blame the society for all ills, but if one looked hard enough, or even wants to look hard enough, one is sure to find solutions — with hope and without rancor as the last group has done. Remember, there are no free lunches in this world.
And hard as it is to believe this group is increasing in number, imperceptibly maybe, bumbling, making mistakes but learning and moving forward – surely and steadily. We can look at them in detail in later posts!