Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.  It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity.  It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it.  But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior.  the mistake, says the mystique, the root of women's troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.

I can only imagine how amazing and revolutionary The Feminine Mystique was when it came out.  I found it fascinating, though, fortunately, a little hard to relate to.  Some of the ideas and paradigms that existed in the 50s and early 60s were just bananas (one of my favorite parts of the book was when Friedan listed a selection of articles found in women's magazines of the day, including, "How to Snare a Male," "Really a Man's World, Politics," "Don't Be Afraid to Marry Young," and, of course, "Do Women Have to Talk So Much?").  Sometimes I wondered if it really could have been that crazy, though I don't doubt that it was.  I look forward to getting a chance to talking to some of my older female relatives who grew up in the teeth of the feminine mystique to find out what it was like.

Anyway, Friedan explains how after the feminist successes of the 1920s and the cultural transformations that followed World War II, the American middle class was swept by what she calls the feminist mystique, which encouraged women to stay at home and fostered the belief that a woman's highest purpose was to bear and raise children, the keep up her house and cater to her husband's needs.  Unless a woman worked toward those ends, and only those ends, she couldn't truly fulfill her femininity or her true nature as a woman.  The (incredibly patronizing) belief was that women were intrinsically different than men and that there was something special and magical about them that gave them these unique abilities to be wives and mothers, and that it should be celebrated.  (But while you're being all mystical, get back in the kitchen and make my dinner).

The feminine mystique was reinforced by many media and influences.  Women's education was dominated by "functionalist" philosophies and classes, which taught women how to fulfill their function (bearing and raising children), how to adjust to being a wife and mother, and other relevant skills, like cooking and cleaning.  Increasingly, women got married and had babies before even graduating high school, but those who did get to college didn't engage or pursue career ambitions; instead of B.S.s or B.A.s, they only sought MRSs.  Girls were taught that studying too hard or pursuing a career (beyond a temporary, low skill job like a typist or operator) was too masculine and would make it harder to find a man to marry (without which they'd be unable to fulfill their roles as women).  One girl is quoted as saying, "It's not too smart to be smart."

Even though, Friedan says, companies and their advertisers (or "manipulators") didn't invent the feminine mystique, they absolutely spread it and strengthened it.  It served their interests to have women at home, buying things to make being a housewife easier (though not too easy; she still had to feel like she was important to the process).  The chapter on the manipulators was really fascinating.

The catalyst for The Feminine Mystique was Friedan's observation that many women were suffering from "the problem that has no name," which she saw as a frustration, disappointment and depression with being just a housewife.  Because of the pervasiveness of the feminine mystique, women suffered alone, wracked by guilt and afraid of being judged for not being wholly fulfilled by embracing their femininity.  The problem that has no name manifested itself in various sinister ways, including depression, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. Women tried whatever they could to feel alive, including seeking sex, both in an out of marriage, to destructive extents, trying to find an identity by filling their houses with material goods, and smothering their children until their sons become as emotionally stunted and immature as they are (it doesn't really matter that the girls are emotionally stunted and immature, because that's what makes a good wife and mother).

Friedan's answer to extinguishing the feminine mystique was through actual education and finding something that actually fulfilled her and made use of her talents (this latter point seemed pretty focused on middle and upper class white women who had the luxury of finding their calling, however long it took or however little it paid).  She acknowledged that women who had career ambitions and planned on being "career women" were more stressed out as seniors in college than those who planned on just being housewives, but argued that being stressed is part of growing up and facing the challenges of the real world, as opposed to trying to escape to the relative ease and safety of moving from your parents' house to your husband's and never having go through the growing pains of maturity.  According to Friedan, women are as much subject to Maslow's hierarchy of needs as men, and those women who self-actualize are happier, have happier husbands and marriages, and raise more independent, self-sufficient kids.  I believe Tina Fey would certainly agree, based on what I read in Bossypants.

As insightful and powerful as this book is, it is not without flaws.  One of the things I've focused on most in my feminist renaissance is recognizing my privilege.  As a upper class, straight, white male, there are a lot of things that are a lot easier for me than for other demographics that I have to remember not to take for granted.  Friedan, though, has privileges of her own.  I don't want to diminish the seriousness of the issues that Friedan addresses in this book, because they are very important, but there is an extent to which they are first world problems.  Sure, forcing women, through education and societal pressure/expectations, to surrender their individuality and live their lives "defined only in sexual relation to men - man's wife, sex object, mother, housewife - and never as persons defining themselves by their own actions in society" can be dehumanizing.  That being said, it does make it seem pretty crass when she compares the effects of the feminine mystique to the Holocaust (seriously, she calls a housewife's home a "comfortable concentration camp"), especially less than two decades after an actual genocide (another word she uses).  Her perspective on homosexuality also isn't the most progressive (I'd like to think that most feminists today wouldn't say that " spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.").  I also found her a little repetitive at times and thought she sometimes tried to shoe horn issues or ideas into her theories in a way that wasn't really necessary or convincing.  However, on the whole I thought it was powerful and fascinating.

As foreign as some of the descriptions of life in the early 60s were, I also thought there were some interesting parallels to today.  A common topic that keeps popping up on various sites, like The Atlantic, Slate, New York Times, etc, is whether women can have it all.  Friedan would say that women shouldn't have to choose between having a family and a career (that choice is the one imposed by the feminine mystique), and that having a family and a career is almost essential.  One thing I wonder, though, is whether Friedan goes too far in denigrating women who are "just" housewives.  Is there a way to be a stay at home mom (parent) without losing your individual identity and suffering all of the ills laid out in this book?  Does a woman who chooses to stay home with her children today, when the pressure to do so isn't nearly what it was when the book came out, still suffer from the feminine mystique, or does the increasing interconnectedness of the 21st century mean that one can stay at home without letting the world pass her by?  And how does this apply to men who stay at home?  Meagan and I haven't made any decisions about what we'll do when we have a kid, but we know that we'll do whatever is best for our family.  This may mean that one of us stays home, and I fully accept that it may make sense for that parent to be me.  We'll see, though I think it's evidence of progress not only that our decision won't be determined by anatomy, but that we generally won't be scorned or judged because of it.  That being said, I wonder how much my male privilege prevents me from realizing the more subtle ways that the feminine mystique still exists in America.  I know that we have much less flexible and generous maternity leave than in other countries and that when women do take maternity leave, there is sometimes an assumption that they won't come back to work, at least not for long.  I also know that women are still responsible for more housework and childcare than their husbands (though that ratio is certainly better than it was 30 years ago) and that a presidential candidate of a major political party said just last year that if you're going to have women working for you, you have to be flexible with their hours so they can go home and make dinner for their kids.  So yeah, we've come a long way, but I definitely don't think we're there yet.  In fact, I think this book is almost equally as important today as a reminder of where we've been so we don't go there again.  When women like Suzanne Venker are spouting off on about how women just don't want to be CEOs and that women actually had it better back in the day (who cares if you feel intense societal pressure to conform to some rigid, unfulfilling paradigm when you get to get off the Titanic first!), it's clear that we need to remain vigilant.

On the other hand, I wonder if we're moving toward a "new feminine mystique," where women's strengths are actually valued and not just invented as a way to oppress and patronize women.  I haven't yet gotten to Hannah Rosin's The End of Men, but I read the summary article she wrote and have read enough articles about it to get the gist.  In it, Rosin argues that the days when the most economically valuable traits were physical strength have passed us, and there are more jobs that require communication and compromise, which women traditionally excel at to a greater extent than men.  As a result, there are more opportunities for women than for men, and that trend is becoming more pronounced.

On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed The Feminine Mystique and thought it was very well written and thought provoking.  I definitely recommend it, because as I mentioned, even though it came out 50 years ago this year, it isn't a relic of the past and is still relevant today.


Christopher said...

I think Friedan and Wollstonecraft are in dialogue here about a really interesting question: Do "women's strengths" actually exist?

It's easy to say that the idea of the feminine mystique was used patronizingly or oppressively, but to say it implies that there is a way to conceptualize feminine virtues and masculine ones that is not, and I am not sure that that is true. How do we value sexual difference? Can we express femininity in a non-biological way, or is any such expression inherently oppressive?

Good review, btw.

billy said...

I think there are generally differences between men and women (whether those differences are biological or sociological I'm not prepared to say at this point in my studies), and it is ok to recognize that. I think the problem with the feminine mystique was that its celebration of women's strengths was a pretext, a way to enforce the oppressive system in which "anatomy is destiny," as freud said. it was wrong to assign these strengths to women as a whole based solely on their gender and to exclude the possibility of other strengths. women couldn't be smart, assertive, or any of the other positive attributes that were considered "masculine," even though clearly there are women who possess those positive traits. in contrast, i think it is different to value certain traits and acknowledge that one gender or the other tends toward those traits without foreclosing the possibility that an individual of the other gender may also possess that trait. one is an observation and one is a prescription. what Friedan decried was the feminine mystique's insistence that women surrender their individuality to conform to an external ideal. i think as long as we acknowledge and allow people to be individuals and don't force them to fit into these molds we've come up with it's ok to note generic differences

billy said...

for example, it's fine to go to a kindergarten class and observe that the little girls prefer to play with the dolls and that the little boys prefer to run around and play with GI Joes or something. it's not ok to refuse to let a girl play with the GI Joes or let a boy play with the dolls because they aren't suitable for girls or boys, respectively. i think that is the difference between Rosin's observations and the requirements of the feminine mystique

Brittany said...

Your review makes me absolutely want to read this book - I can't wait.

One of the issues that keeps being brought up in my gender and lit class is how much these women who are writing (starting with Wollstonecraft and up to the 1970s theorists) is how much of their own white, heterosexual, upper class or upper middle class privilege is completely unacknowledged. Fortunately there are later women who come along and acknowledge it or come from those underprivileged segments of society with their own perspective, but since those are newer they are just a little less well known.

Regarding the stay at home thing: From what I've seen, it's still not all that great. My best friend did it for a year because it financially made sense, and it was really hard on her. The work distribution and amount of independent time out of the house without kids was totally unbalanced (and I would say their relationship is more aware and attempting to be equal than many).

I went to a birthday party that was attended by many SAH moms and my heart kind of died for my bestie. I am not a parent, and these women really had nothing to say to me because their entire identity appeared to be made up by their momness. After they all left, I asked her if all their conversations were like that, and she confirmed and said it was terrible, but these were the moms who were at the park every day with her, and if she didn't talk to them what grown ups would she talk to?

Staying at home made her feel like she wasn't a person, so she went back to work in a career she's passionate about. Now that she's working again, she's really struggling with the work/life/mom balance and thinking about going back to being a SAH mom. There is no perfect situation where she gets to 'have it all' - at least not one that we've figured out yet.

Brent Waggoner said...

I think how well staying at home works varies greatly depending on the person. My wife, who has two college degrees and worked as a staff writer for a charity for several years, is a stay at home mom now and she loves it.

She networks with other mothers, plans activities for her and our baby (and me, when can manage it), is ontinuing her education, and still has plenty of time to hang out with her friends as well. She treats it like a job, always studying and learning more--she's taking an intensive childbirth educator class currently--and doesn't find it depressing or unfulfilling at all--just the opposite, in fact.

Because of that, I have a hard time with the idea that being a stay at home parent somehow strips away someone's personhood--I think a lot of it has to do with the mindset. When I meet SAHMs who say they don't have anything to do all day, I just wonder if they've chosen to approach it in a productive way.

Brent Waggoner said...

I hope that didn't sound too confrontational, just offering another view. Great review too, btw.

Randy said...

I wonder how Friedan would feel about the feminine mystique today. I think, in terms of alternative paths for women, things have improved substantially today. However, many women still choose the feminine mystique. How much of this choice is free and how much of this choice is informed/coerced by social norms?

And, does the fact that being a stay at home mother is more of a choice today change the self-actualization analysis?

Christopher said...

Randy, I think an answer to your question would have to recognize the difficulty in defining "free" as well as the way in which ALL choices available to women (and men) are determined by "social norms."

billy said...

it seems that the key is individual self-actualization. the feminine mystique held that women were most/only self-actualized by being housewives and mothers (or that it didn't matter if they were self-actualized, because their role was to be housewives and mothers). friedan argues the other extreme, that women can't be self-actualized by being "just" a housewife and mother. it seems the answer is somewhere in between. Brittany, it sounds like your friend isn't, while, Brent, it sounds like your wife is. Not to take the easy way out and just sprint to the middle, but I think that people have the option to figure out what is best for them, regardless of their gender and whether that means staying at home or working, is what we should shoot for.

of course, the point chris brings up is also important: how free are people's choices, really? i think there are a lot of elements to this. there are social norms and pressures that still push women into staying at home and pushing men away from it. when i coached summer swimming, one of the parents was a stay at home dad. he said that the other moms were polite to him, but didn't really accept him because he stayed at home while his wife worked. he said that there was a stigma that he was a deadbeat or lazy for not going to work. so it goes both ways, in some respects. also, there are economic factors that are a lot different now than when the book was published. there are a lot of families that depend on having two incomes, so there isn't really a question of whether one parent will stay at home. on the other hand, there are families where one parent has trouble finding a job, so that parent stays at home by default.

Brittany said...

Brent, you say "a lot of it has to do with the mindset" I'm more inclined to agree with Chris and Billy that a lot of it probably has to do with choice.

For her family, it wasn't a matter of choice. It would cost more in (non-professional, other stay-at-home mom) childcare than she would be paid. She's an artist, an English teacher (and therefore book nerd like the rest of us), crafter, furniture refinisher, marathon runner, and is halfway through a Master's degree which is incredibly fulfilling (last semester she worked with Holocaust survivors who were writing their stories!), but it wasn't her choice to stay at home.

I haven't done any research (and I wish I had the time to!) but I would venture that the women who are more satisfied with being SAH are the women who had more of a choice. Women who do so because of disability, financial inability to afford to work, unwanted unemployment, or social pressures are probably less satisfied.

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Brent Waggoner said...

I want to respond more in depth, but I do like the "choice" aspect. I think that's definitely a huge factor and one I overlooked in your initial post.

Also, when I mentioned this discussion to my wife, she said that a lot of the mothers she meets are just like your friend described so... look before I leap next time, maybe?

Brittany said...

Ran across this while looking for an article for my students.