Thank You, Betty Friedan
By Georganne Spruce
In July 1978, I stood among 100,000 women, and a few men, as Betty Friedan spoke at the 1978 Equal Rights Amendment March on Washington, D.C. Gratitude filled my heart as I listened, hardly believing that I was standing before the woman whose words had given me hope years before (From Awakening to the Dance: A Journey to Wholeness, Georganne Spruce, 2012):
It was 1964 and I sat crosslegged on the floor between the stacks of the Memphis State University library, sobbing and shaking with relief as the tears streamed down my face, spotting the pages of the book on my lap. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “I’m not insane. There are other women who think like me.” Trying to wipe away the tears with one hand so I could see, I continued reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. My attention was drawn to the chapters, “The Happy Housewife Heroine,” “The Mistaken Choice,” “The Forfeited Self.” Chapter 1 was titled “The Problem That Has No Name” and described the yearning of wives and mothers who were asking, “Is this all?” A calmness fell over me. I was no longer ashamed of my deepest secret—one I never shared with even my closest girlfriends. I had no interest in being a mother.
For the last few years, I had felt depressed and resentful much of the time. A deep anger that I couldn’t release had solidified into a hard knot under my right shoulder blade. I knew its source was the outrage I felt because everything I’d ever wanted to do with my life, even dress designing, was reserved for men. I was supposed to be a nurse, teacher, or secretary. I wanted to explore caves. “Nope, too dangerous,” the critic in my head announced. A doctor. “Sure, but no man wants to marry a woman doctor.” A writer. “Women writers are always old maids. Besides, no one makes money doing that.” The voice was sarcastic that time.
I felt at the mercy of a world that didn’t value my talents, and I finally realized that it really didn’t matter to anyone whom I became unless I was a wife or mother, and if I weren’t that, I was of no consequence.
My parents encouraged me to do my best in school, insisting that I could be anything I wanted. But when they refused to find a way to send me to Northwestern University, my first choice, I was devastated. I felt betrayed, five years later, when my mother returned to teaching so my brother could attend the college of his choice.
At the local university, I majored in theatre and discovered the glorious world of modern dance. By graduation, I was determined to dance and support myself with teaching if necessary. I considered people’s common sense advice simply attempts to make me conform to becoming a wife and mother.
All the young women I knew were getting married. My best friend and I planned to study with Erick Hawkins in New York, but she became engaged and used her trip money to buy crystal and china. By graduation, I had fallen in love and became engaged after confirming that my fiancé understood that I was a dancer and not interested in children. He was fine with that – so he said.
When my marriage fell apart in 1976, I discovered that my husband had misled me about his intentions to support me for a year while I established my business teaching dance classes. He admitted that he had never taken my dancing seriously because he believed I would outgrow the idea.
The teaching position that I had resigned was quickly filled. Without a job I experienced the full impact of discrimination against women. Our financial credit belonged to my husband, although I had helped pay the bills. I received no alimony because I had more education (an M.F.A.) even though my husband made thousands more than I could make by teaching.
The women’s movement was in full swing by then, but the women I met were so angry and hated men so much that I was put off. Again, I was on my own. No matter how challenging life became, I vowed to never relinquish dance, my greatest passion.
Unable to connect with the women’s movement, I kept asking, “Who am I really? I’m more than a dancer.”
To learn about the history of women, I began reading books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman. As I read about ancient goddess religions and feminine myths, I met other women eagerly exploring women’s history, a topic that was practically nonexistent in school history books.
As a result, I grew spiritually and reconnected with nature, remembering how I had loved the out-of-doors and our family hikes as a child. My belief that nature was alive rekindled as I connected feminine history and its connection to nature; it was and still is my spiritual center.
I also changed my thinking about relationships with men. Why was I expected to always meet their needs without them meeting mine? Why was I a bitch when strongly expressing my viewpoint? These were challenging experiences because, although some men tried changing, most resisted meaningful modifications. Caught in their stereotypes, they were even more confused than women.
I saw many strong women turn passive to have a relationship. I repeatedly rejected their choice as I recalled that women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem remained true to themselves. If they could, so could I. Whenever I was tired and doubting my ability to remain true to myself, I remembered my mother, one of the unhappiest women I knew.
My father, extremely introverted, never expressed his love for her. No matter how nicely she dressed to please him, he always said that she looked okay. My mother relinquished everything he disliked including her friends, her love of singing, and many other pleasures dear to her. She enjoyed a new life when she returned to teaching but when her career was over, she retreated to living through her grandchildren just as she had lived through her children. As she increasingly withdrew from life, I promised myself that I would never live like my mother.
When the physical stress of dance began causing constant pain, I faced another crisis when I stopped teaching: who was I without dance? I continued teaching high school English, but that was creative in an entirely different way. I truly enjoyed teaching literature because I used ideas to teach young women to think for themselves. This gave me the opportunity to inspire in them the self-respect and self-love I earned through many struggles.
Over the years, I began to realize that who I was had little to do with what I did in life. On the spiritual level, there was something deeper, and I had begun to explore meditation and other spiritual philosophies and practices that helped me find the core of who I was aside from political definitions. During these years, I was also inspired to write. Having had the courage to become a dancer gave me the courage to face the rather daunting path to become a writer.
Loving books from the moment I was born, I had started writing when I was twelve and continued to write poetry and journal throughout my life, but I received the same message about it that I received about anything artistic: “You can’t make a living at it.” After I stopped teaching dance, I slowly returned to this passion, taking classes and joining writers’ groups. From time to time I tried getting pieces published and sometimes did, but the rejections were hard to take.
Of course, I received the same feedback about writing as I had about my other artistic endeavors: “You can’t make a living at it.” Whenever I felt like giving up, I reminded myself of all the women who discovered the courage to follow their passions, especially early feminists, many of whom were vilified. In fact, many of their writings were considered scandalous. But my era was uniquely challenging, and I kept thinking that perhaps what I learned could help others on their journey.
Two years ago, I committed totally to completing my memoir Awakening to the Dance: A Journey of Wholeness. This is my story of overcoming life’s challenges and discovering my authentic, spiritual center. Because I spent ten years writing this book, I refused to endure the process of hunting for a publisher, so I published independently in June 2012. When I made this commitment everything I needed to succeed fell into place. Classes and people to teach me what I needed to know regularly appeared, sometimes even before I realized I needed them.
Years ago, The Feminine Mystique taught me was that I had a right to want more and to travel a full and rich journey through life. The book led me down a path ignored by most women of that era, inspired me to listen to myself, and to trust my own instincts, and that has proven to be a fulfilling journey.
Thank you, Betty Friedan, for having the courage to share your journey and for writing your book that changed my life and gave me hope.
Georganne Spruce is a former modern dancer and the author of Awakening to the Dance: A Journey to Wholeness, a memoir of her journey to define who she was separate from society’s stereotypes, to follow her passion for dance, and find her spiritual core. In the book, Georganne shares the tools, practices, dreams and insights that have transformed her life. As well as writing, she teaches classes on how to release your fear. She publishes a weekly inspirational blog on her website. She may be reached at email@example.com.