Reading The Feminine Mystique for the First Time, Part I

I wasn’t expecting to cry while reading Betty Friedan’s classic about the mysterious ailment dogging housewives in the 1950s and 60s, but I did, twice. In reading Friedan’s own two introductions alone, I was moved by how many old, false accusations, particularly the scapegoating of women for economic stagnation and the decline of traditional family values against women who want more than a  life in the home, still plague contemporary women who want a life outside the home.

Then I dove into the first half of the book, where I recognized may more insidious tactics that still keep women subservient, including peddling souped-up versions of misogynistic, pseudo-scientific “fact,” citing the classic “penis envy” critique of feminism, and, perhaps most prevalent in our 21st-century American life, the shilling of materialism as the salve that can heal any discontented homemaker’s wounds.

I had never even heard of The Feminist Mystique before I took Sociology 101, and by then I was 19 and perhaps a bit too self-assured of my own intelligence and place in the world, certainly unafraid that “the man” (literally or representing the corporate bogeyman) could ever hold me down. We didn’t read the text, but discussed it very briefly in light of a unit on sexism, and I remember nodding diligently when my professor talked about how deeply bored and lonely housewives of that particular era felt. I’m pretty sure I thought something along the lines of, “Well, duh, it’s a wonder they didn’t figure it out sooner.”

The genius of The Feminine Mystique is that Friedan anticipated people would question how millions of housewives could all feel the same soul-curdling dissatisfaction, yet each imagine her problem was just an individual anomaly. In my favorite chapter, The Happy Housewife Heroine, she charts the content of popular women’s magazines, demonstrating how sources of stories about engaging, independent women gradually became dumps filled with “how-to” articles regarding hair dyeing, sex, and home décor, while the magazines’ literary content flatlined with stories about “the minute sensations of a baby throwing his bottle out of the crib.” The image of the perfect housewife, “healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home,” is the foundation of the “mystique” that is an otherwise unsupported expectation that every woman will automatically find joy in the “feminine” role of homemaking.

I’m familiar with “Rosie the Riveter” and the fact that World Wars I and II were great times for the advancement of women, who worked outside the home and became involved in their communities in unprecedented numbers, but I had never made the connection between those soldering, rationing women and the idyllic housewife of the 50s. It’s obvious that something changed, at a societal level, to convince so many women to abandon the career-driven dreams of their mothers and their own childhood ambitions, and instead embrace a cookie-cutter lifestyle which dictated the same rubric of success for all women, regardless of innate talent or predisposition.

Friedan starts at the inception of the women’s movement in America, when women like Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony and Angelina Grimké traveled the country organizing meetings to discuss women’s rights, and were degraded as “unnatural monsters” in the process. Their efforts won women the right to vote, but so thorouhgly erased the former image of woman as inferior, a legal nonentity in the eyes of the law, that just a few generations later, women had already forgotten the story of their liberation and were shanghai-ed once again into the box of limited mobility.

Friedan does a fine job of tracing the influence of Freud’s debasement of women as sexually inferior beings and the following American functionalism movement, which described complementarian roles as the only practical way to organize a family. She moves from the philosophical and psychological arguments for women to stay in the home to the anthropological findings of Margaret mead, a prolific writer whose work did perhaps more than anyone else’s to shepherd women into the fold of domesticity. I won’t go too much into the details of these chapters, as they’re fairly dry (though thoroughly enlightening) and best left to the individual reader to engage.

After debunking the anti-woman “facts” of the day, Friedan draws the core conclusion that all humans, male and female alike, need the opportunity to grow and thrive in order to maintain mental health and stamina. Throughout Mystique she identifies the ways women have been infantilized, whether it be through dress or overprotective parents or off-base psychoanalysis, theorizing that the stunted growth of women as intellectuals and unique human beings keeps them trapped in their fate, but does nothing to assuage any of the unnamable urges or sadness or emptiness they feel.

I could go on and on about the captivating regret of the older women who felt they had betrayed their younger sisters by urging them towards the home life, or the nation-wide denigration of career women and feminists that was going on the 50s and 60s, but I’d rather conclude in a more personal way.

It’s been a very long time since I read 250 pages of non-fiction as quickly and eagerly as I read Friedan’s opus, and very rarely have I finished reading a book (or in this case, half a book) and felt so encouraged in the pursuit of my own goals and the knowledge that personal growth is not only unselfish, but necessary in order to achieve happiness and contentment.

There was a brief time in my life, nearly a year ago now, when it seemed like every day started and ended with tears and I couldn’t put a name to what I was feeling. I would try to explain it to my supportive husband, but he didn’t understand why I was so distraught over, basically, nothing. I now know that I was feeling the repercussions of choosing to reject most of what I was taught in my childhood (that woman’s place is in the home, that working women castrate and destroy families, that women were not made to pursue careers) in order to pursue dreams (of writing, of political involvement, of steadily accruing a career) that are foreign to and even decried by many of my family members.

I don’t want to wind up like so many of the women Friedan interviewed for her book, lonely and mystified at that loneliness, angry with their husbands and perpetually irritated with their children for not satisfying their every need. I do believe that being a homemaker is a worthy and important profession, particularly now that modern technology enables mother and wives to participate in careers and community from home, but I it isn’t for me.

Most of all, I’m grateful that there are books like The Feminine Mystique out there, books I can read, knowing I’m slipping into the mindset of millions of other women who faced the same opposition and continued to fight it, making the world better for me and the women of my generation, if only we will take advantage of the myriad opportunities presented us.

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