10 August 1999

Feminism's Legacy For Children

by Kate Melville

A University of Arkansas researcher has found that while wives and mothers who participated in the feminist movements of the 1970s and 80s experienced contradictions in juggling feminism and family life, their children benefited over the long term from their mother's activism.

Anna Zajicek, assistant professor of sociology, will present her findings at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Chicago this Sunday.

As part of an oral history project funded by the Arkansas Humanities Council, Zajicek and her colleagues interviewed 15 women about their participation in the feminist movement and its effect on their lives. These women were married and had children at the time.

"A lot of the women seemed to feel empowered by the feminist movement," Zajicek said. "At the same time, because of family, a lot of them had to give up their participation."

For women with children, being a mother heavily influenced their activism.

"Motherhood shaped their agendas. It shaped their activities. It shaped the things they were interested in," Zajicek said. These women were concerned with improving the lives of their children. They tried to institutionalize changes in day care, and campaigned for kindergarten, she said. They also used their experiences to help with other programs, such as Head Start.

In turn, these women felt their children benefited from their feminist activism, Zajicek said.

As women gained self-confidence and autonomy, they often entered non-traditional fields and became successful at their careers, helping their families financially, Zajicek said.

Their ideology also gave their children an emotional boost.

"A lot of women said their participation in the women's movement taught their children about equality," she said. "They were positive role models for the children."

The women seemed to follow three distinctive paths in terms of how they integrated feminism into their marriages. Zajicek categorized the women as adapters, resisters and retreaters.

Adapters tried to establish a sense of self, often by keeping their maiden name and pursuing a career. These were often older women, born in the 1930s and 40s.

Resistors often divorced their partners, mostly because they realized that their husbands did not share their beliefs and wanted their relationship to remain the same. For these women, participation in the feminist movement often gave them the strength to leave their marriages, Zajicek suggests.

Retreaters also tended to divorce, but remarried and established more equitable relationships the second time around, Zajicek found.