As we try to make sense of what has happened and what is likely to happen, I keep hearing the phrase “The American Dream”—the mantra of the conservatives. I never believed it existed—what dream does?—but a commentator whose name I didn’t hear on NPR today advanced the opinion that it did exist—once—in a golden period of prosperity from the end of the war that created it in 1945 to the revelations of Watergate in 1973.
This is a time I remember, although with a different shading. I didn’t know, then, that during that period home ownership in the U.S. increased from 31 to 60 percent of the population. This was the explosion of the suburbs, and the proliferation of so-called labor saving devices—washing machines, dryers, microwaves—that failed to save labor; according to a study at the time, having a washing machine and dryer meant that most women began to wash sheets and towels twice a week instead of once. As a corollary, clothes lines fell out of favor. Not a labor saving device, to be sure, but an energy saving one; even here where the sun shines most days, we all use dryers, and some expensive communities even ban clothes lines which now seem to remind us of city tenements.
It’s taken us a long time, as a nation and as individuals, to recognize that home ownership, rather than an essential bastion of The Dream, produces a financial burden in the form of extortive mortgages that plunge many people into bankruptcy. The majority of our population are one paycheck away from losing the place they live. It used to seem clear that for most people, renting makes more sense, financially, and possibly emotionally: many of us actually like to move in and out of other people’s shells. And renting puts a limit on our insane accumulation of possessions, since each new thing will have to be wrapped, packed, and hauled to the next address.
Where does the family, and especially the Holy Family, figure in all this?
The American Dream didn’t just promote home ownership. It also promoted large families. I was one of five, and most of the children I knew growing up came from equally large broods. The ideal, for some, was The Holy Family of the Bible.
That family came about through a series of apparent misfortunes: a virgin married to a much older man, surely an arranged match, then made pregnant without having any say in the matter—and certainly no sinful pleasure—almost repudiated by her horrified husband, and living from then on, I imagine, under the shadow of having committed a sin—and finally witnessing the murder of her son. Not a scenario most of us would want to imitate.
Yet all the images of the Holy Family explore in luscious colors the unity and affection this mother, father, and child represent, without any of the complexities inevitable after such a complex beginning.
And we humans so often can’t live up to that ideal—if it is an ideal. Yet most of us are to some degree enslaved by it, especially if we have children. There’s a link here to the most passionately held, and the most irrational, of the conservatives’ beliefs.
No one I know has ever been able to explain, rationally, the conservative attack on birth control and abortion. It grows like a noxious weed out of an hysterical fear of women’s autonomy. After all, if Mary had had access to the Pill, who knows whether the Savior would have been born? And since one of the many things men can’t do without women is create a child—a male heir, preferably—our ability to avoid conceiving or even to avoid giving birth is the most potent symbol of our power we can provide.
The women who storm women’s health clinics—which provide much more than abortion—know the sting of that backlash: the beloved man whose sense of his own limitations must be blunted if at all possible since a sense of his own limitations can drive some men to violence. As long as we are dependent economically and emotionally on male partners, we will do everything we can to reinforce their essential sense of power. Therefore our attraction to tyrants, braggers, and self-centered billionaires, who create, at least briefly, the impression of possessing overweening confidence and unshakable power.
I never believed in the American Dream—although I seemed to be living it—because I always sensed, even as a child, the unhappiness of women imprisoned by it. Brilliant, ambitious women trapped in suburban ranch houses, trying to create a satisfying life out of chauffeuring their children; upper-class wives enslaved by their husbands’ ambitions—for everyone knows that “Every successful man has a woman behind him”—or under him; single women made to feel like pariahs in a society geared to couples; women who chose not to reproduce endlessly questioned, cautioned and criticized—for our culture and its economy depends on women having children.
That’s the reason I felt for the first time that I was not alone when I read Betty Friedan’s revelatory 1963 The Feminine Mystique in which she described “The problem that has no name”—the inadmissible suffering of women like me, women “who have everything.” She wrote of the period we are going to see recreated now—that “Golden Era” of the late 1940’s and 1950’s. It is a spiritual, intellectual and emotional contraction caused by fear:
Fear of another economic collapse, of a final challenge to American exceptionalism and American colonialism either through the expansion of other economies, eclipsing ours, or through nuclear holocaust. Whenever outward circumstances feel unstable, most of us retreat to an idealized family life (during the Cold War, we literally retreated to underground bomb shelters.) We retreat to the Holy Family—in secular terms, a woman married too young and perhaps without her consent, an unwilled pregnancy brought about without erotic pleasure, and a life devoted to the consequent spiraling self-sacrifices.
The compensations middle-class married women are offered boil down to a credit card we don’t have to pay off, clothes, and jewelry, and now an opportunity, as First Lady, to hawk a piece of that jewelry on network television.
Maybe it’s time for us to re-read Betty’s book and to reconsider that out-of-date term, “Single Blessedness.”