The difference between my husband and me, at least since he retired, may be boiled down (ahem) to the way we share kitchen duties. We both like to cook, but for themost part I load the dishwasher and do all the picking up and putting away. He provides the elbow grease, washing the pots — and, okay, the wine glasses.
Still, Chris and I are a quite conventional heterosexual couple, my longstanding career, and the fact that he was a single father, notwithstanding. In the 1950s, when I was coming of age, wives were homemakers and husbands were breadwinners. That is how it was and how most people expected it to continue to be. Period. It wasn’t until 1963 that Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” got the matter of gender roles among married men and women into mainstream discussion. Ms. Friedan was concerned about the division of labor in middle-class families at the time, and she helped women insist that they, like their husbands, had a right to pursue a profession.
When we talk about marital equity today, of course, we mean a lot more than who washes the dishes and changes the diapers. We are concerned about those who are gay and who would like to be married. Times have changed.
In the 1990s, domestic partnerships and civil unions between couples of the same gender began to be legalized, in 2004, same-sex marriage was approved for the first time, in the State of Massachusetts. My brother-in-law Bob and his longtime partner, Joe, were the first men ever to be married in Lawrence, Mass. As we honored their love for each other and danced at their wedding, we were aware that it was an almost revolutionary event.
Today, couples decide for themselves who will be the homemaker and who will be the breadwinner.Sometimes, they decide who will be both: Wives, even if they are the one bringing home most of the bacon, still seem to end up planning the meals, getting the laundry done, and, if there are kids, organizing them and hustling them out the door to wherever they have to go.
In an article in The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, a survey of women who had opted out of powerful careers to care for their children described the uneven results of trying to re-enter the work force after 10 years, as well as the negative effects figuring it all out had had on their marriages.
Betty Friedan, who spent lots of time in Sag Harbor when she wasn’t gallivanting around the country, once told me that “The Feminist Mystique” had come along too late to change her own attitude toward men. A force for women’s independence, she nevertheless loved being squired, and usually was.
Fifty years have intervened since Betty Friedan caused a sensation, but I can’t help thinking that if she were alive today she would be right there in acknowledging how hard it is for women to be both mothers and professionals. She had been criticized by successive generations of feminists for, among other things, being dismissive of gays. She was resilient, though, and I am sure that today she would have something positive to say about our culture’s more all-embracing understanding of marriage. I would love to hear it.