A new generation
I’m very pleased to be publishing a new edition of Broken Patterns—in part because there’s great interest in “women’s issues” just now. Some evidence is in the tremendous success of Sheryl Sandberg’s excellent Lean In, which encourages women to unite, and to stand up for themselves in the workplace. Other evidence comes from recent conversations I’ve had with young women who are trying to figure out how to live successful personal and professional lives.
Broken Pattern tells stories of women of the baby boom generation who entered male-dominated professions in the 1970s and 1980s. It places those women, their mothers, and their grandmothers in historical context, tracing a push-pull pattern of generational development back to the U.S. Colonial period. Bluntly stated: the more women left home for paying work in one generation, the deeper the societal belief that women belonged at home, in the next. Most of the women I interviewed had grandmothers who worked outside the home in the early 1900s and mothers who were homemakers in the 1950s. My interviewees said they chose their careers mainly because they didn’t want lives like their mothers’—unfulfilled and subservient to husbands.
Now, a new generation of women is entering adulthood.Kara is a college junior whose parents divorced when she was 15. Her father then married a woman twenty years his junior and Kara moved between two homes. Kara’s mother was “a homemaker who left only to meet other moms for lunch and to gossip.” Her stepmother worked in advertising, and, later, in real estate. “My stepmother travels a lot,” Kara says. “She spends time with her women friends, in Las Vegas.” Kara is well-aware of the “distinct differences between her homemaker mom” and her “jet-setting, businesswoman stepmom who was never home.” Also well-aware that women now have choices, she is spending a semester Europe, trying to sort hers out.
Ling grew up in China. Her paternal grandmother was a college professor and Ling’s mother held low-level administrative jobs. With ambition, perhaps to become a professor, Ling came on her own to study in the US. She now has a master’s degree and a boyfriend. Her boyfriend has working papers but is not a US citizen. Ling wants to stay in the US with him, but cannot legally work, here. “Do I have to be a housewife?” she asks.
Sama, a college sophomore with an American mother and an African father, grew up mainly in Africa. Her parents want her to go to medical school but Sama is interested in publishing. She tells me she can’t talk to her mother about career or women’s issues. Her mother, a chemical engineer now in her 40s, doesn’t seem interested. Why not? “I think it’s because she came along at the end of a wave” when there was no question whether she would have a professional career, Sama says. “Or,” she quips, “maybe she’s just not that perceptive.”
Kim, 24, is the daughter of a 62-year-old man of Jewish-Hispanic background and his third wife, a nurse, who is Christian. Kim’s step-sister, 42, “is a super-feminist,” Kim says.” Asked what she means by that, Kim says, jokingly, “She doesn’t wear a bra.” After college, Kim worked at a school in South America and eloped with a man she met there. The two recently returned to the US. At Kim’s mother’s insistence, they are planning a traditional wedding, and Kim will likely go on to professional school. As the daughter of an intercultural and intergenerational marriage, Kim says, she is unsure where she belongs.
These young women and their peers are entering adulthood in a rapidly-changing, interconnected world. With new technologies, anti-bias laws and more flexible work environments, it often seems like opportunities are wide open to them. But economics, politics and life itself are unpredictable. Many are grappling with some of the same questions of identity and equality asked by women in generations past.
I hope this new edition of Broken Patterns will provide them—and women of all ages and backgrounds—with insights that will help them navigate the complex psychological, economic, social and historical forces that influence women’s lives.
–Anita M. Harris