Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar remains one of my favorite novels – to read and to teach. Published in 1963, just months before Plath’s suicide, the work is an autobiographically-based, witty account of female angst, depression and self-discovery. Narrator Esther Greenwood is talented and smart, but feels pigeon-holed within the era’s gender roles and expectations. Encouraged to succeed in college, yet given covert messages about the appropriateness of female ambition, Esther, understandably feels starved as she gazes upon the feast of her future potentiality. Her dilemma? If she chooses to have a career, it seems it will be at the expense of some future husband and/or children. If she chooses to plan to be a wife and/or mother, she ultimately forfeits important career opportunities.
This book always generates bountiful classroom discussion. My students tell me that, in their eyes, things haven’t really changed! Women are still “expected” to plan their careers around future children, families and husbands. Men are still “expected” to shoulder the majority of the financial responsibilities. Worse? Women have a limited time frame to have children and that knowledge is like a time bomb that ticks ticks ticks. Never mind that the young women haven’t even met someone they’d consider making a life with. Never mind that they haven’t decided whether or not to have children – the awful social pressure is still there . . . and, like Esther, still threatens to smother their other career-based callings to affect humanity.
Perhaps this is one reason that women still make up only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and still account for only 16 percent of our elected political representatives. Because of ancient gender expectations that women must be more responsible for the doings of all things connected to the home, even if they have a career, it is still harder for women than it is for men to pursue certain career paths – those that offer a lot of responsibility, not to mention a lot more money.
What are your thoughts? Do women still feel this unspoken dilemma? Do men?