How did feminism affect girls who grew up in the 1970s?

Sociologists like Nancy Mandell call women who are now in their 50s a generation in transition.

“Many social norms changed with this generation,” says the York professor. They came of age during the social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s when they suddenly had more educational, career and marriage options than their homemaker mothers ever had – and a feminist ideology encouraging them to strike out in a different direction.

Right: July 1972 issue of Ms. magazine

“We call this a generation in transition,” says Mandell. “The blueprints provided to them by their mothers didn’t work anymore.” As the first generation of highly educated women, they ventured into a workplace where they had few female role models or female mentors – sisters, mothers or grandmothers – who could guide them. “Women didn’t have the obvious models ahead of them” to help them cope with competing responsibilities of home and work.

What choices did they make? How did they adjust? Mandell and two colleagues, Sue Wilson, associate dean of Ryerson University’s Faculty of Community Services, and Anne Duffy, sociology professor at Brock University, decided to find out. As members of this transitional generation, all three sociologists wanted to find out how the women’s movement has helped shape their thinking, behaviour and emotional connections.

The women of this generation in transition are in their 50s and 60s now, an ideal time to ask them about the impact of that period on their lives. “Mid-life is a time when people do reflect,” says Mandell.

Two years ago, she and her colleagues interviewed 100 women about family and work, health and well-being. Participants came from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds, largely from the Toronto and Niagara region.  The researchers wanted to know what areas of life participants felt they controlled; who they cared for and who cared for them; what compromises they had made and others had made for them; what communities they belonged to. “People were very keen to talk about their lives,” says Mandell. “They had a lot to say about the historical and social context in which they grew up and the social forces that shaped their choices.” It’s not something women usually talk about except with very close friends, she says.

A central theme emerged from the interview – these women led lives of structured ambivalence. When women were asked how they felt about aspects of their lives and whether they had any regrets, there was a “huge outpouring”, says Mandell. Faced with contradictory demands – to stay at home or have a career – women made choices about which they are still ambivalent. “We don’t think of choices and regrets as socially induced but they are,” she says.

What choices these women made and how they navigated the shift away from traditional gendered life courses over the past 25 years will fill the pages of a book coming out this fall. Based on Mandell and her colleagues’ study, the book will include chapters on intimacy, caring, paid work, retirement, health and well-being, and the impact of the women’s movement on these women’s lives.

“A lot of younger women will be interested in reading the book,” says Mandell, because it shows older women being introspective and provides a window on their own lives. “Young women are also frightened” about the uncharted waters that lie ahead, suggests Mandell. “They also yearn for blueprints.”

Left: Sue Wilson and daughter Leslie

One aspect of the study has already gone into print. Leslie Wilson (MA ’05), daughter of Sue Wilson and an assistant researcher at Ryerson, was hired to begin a detailed analysis of the study. She was struck by the fact that of the participants who had daughters, 80 per cent talked about feminism in relation to their daughters. Whether they had stayed at home or tried to juggle career and home, they all believed in equal opportunity for their daughters. “These women came of age during the women’s movement so we thought this would have been the major influence on their feminist identity, but that was only part of the story,” says Leslie. “Having a daughter in their lives provided the impetus for reconnecting the personal to the political.”

“I feel the same with relation to my mother. I have opportunities she never had,” says Leslie. “At the same time, through me she has a window on what it’s like to be a younger female. It helps everyone’s perspective.”

Leslie, a student in the York/Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture when she was analyzing the study, published an article about the daughter-to-mother direction of feminist influence. The article, “‘She could be anything she wants to be’: Mothers and Daughters and Feminist Identity”, appeared in York’s Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering in September.

Next Mandell would like to interview men about the impact of the women’s movement on their lives. “Women have adjusted to role changes but men’s roles really have lagged behind. And there’s no similar movement supporting changing male roles.”