Reading The Feminist Mystique, Pt. II: The Honeymoon’s Over

In the second half of Betty Friedan’s classic screed calling for the women of America to wake up and shake off the deadening grip of housewifery, the book begins to show its age. Amid genuinely compelling research about how corporations shill products to identity-less women, there are blithe assertions that suffocating mothers contribute to their sons’ homosexuality and promiscuous women are emotionally immature. The Feminine Mystique, as an iconic and highly influential relic of the mid-century feminist movement, deserves our appreciation and respect, but it’s far from perfect.

“The Sexual Sell” is my favorite chapter in Mystique, as it expands on the scattered hints dropped earlier in the book that consumerism is the Wizard pulling the strings behind the gilded screen of perfect domesticity.

“Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house. In all the talk of femininity and women’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business.”

Preach, Betty. A bigwig ad executive who specializes in the art of manipulating the female consumer shares some of the tricks of his trade with Friedan, specifically how to portray baking mixes as avenues to creativity and a second car as an under-appreciated mom’s “castle.”  By specifying that women actually follow their bliss (to quote Joseph Campbell) through the stockpiling of tchotchkes, brands weasel their way into the gaping emptiness left in the absence of self-knowledge, purpose, or community involvement at a level higher than den mother.

I have a few 60s-era interior decorating magazines, and whenever I look through them I’m shocked, not only by the shag carpeting and the matchy-matchy colors, but by how elaborately decorated the homes are. Compared to the Swedish minimalism in vogue today (that’s just a fancy way of saying, “Everybody buys neutral-colored plastics from Ikea”), it’s readily apparent that the chapter Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available is not exaggerating the increasingly intricate tasks bored housewives will set for themselves, from waxing the floors on a daily basis to ironing drapes to cleaning the walls (Who does that anymore? Am I supposed to be cleaning my walls?).

A young mother is quoted as saying,

“Last week, when my dryer broke down, the sheets didn’t get changed for eight days. Everyone complained. We all felt dirty. I felt guilty. Isn’t that silly?”

And here Friedan demonstrates one of the central, binding tenets of the feminine mystique in action, that women have been misled, by Freudian psychoanalysts and bunk anthropologists and so-called children’s development experts, to believe they are criminally responsible for virtually anything that goes wrong in the lives of their family members, particularly children.

“It was suddenly discovered that women could be blamed for almost everything. In every case history of troubled child; alcoholic, suicidal, schizophrenic, psychopathic, neurotic adult; impotent, homosexual male; frigid, promiscuous female; ulcerous, asthmatic, and otherwise disturbed American, could be found a mother.”

The guilt was sloughed onto women from a variety of sources. Post-World-War-II studies concluded that juvenile delinquency was linked to mothers who worked irregularly outside the home. Researchers, from that particular study and others, concluded that “career women” suffered from misplaced motivations. GIs returned home changed by war, eager for the warm fires of “the home front,” so women dutifully gave up their jobs to mold themselves into the mothering figures their husbands desired.

While Friedan presents the case that women were guilted and cajoled into abandoning the breakthroughs that the women’s movement of the late 19th– and early-20th century made, she surprised me by concluding that women still had a choice in the matter. That wasn’t where I expected the book to go, but I think she makes a necessary distinction between women as helpless puppets and women as products of a powerful, but not entirely overwhelming, cultural shift towards female domesticity.

I will try not to dwell too long on the two chapters that made my eyeballs roll back into my head; suffice it to say The Sex-Seekers and, to a lesser extent, Progressive Dehumanization, are often disappointing. Now that I’ve had a few hours to let what I read settle, I can agree with Friedan’s elemental assertion that domesticated women use sex, particularly the fantasy of sex as the identity-fulfilling pinnacle of contentment, as a substitute for real personal development. After that, our opinions vastly differ.

Because the sexual revolution was revving up when Friedan was already middle-aged (for a tad bit of context, she thinks Tennessee Williams’ plays are abominable and that “beatnikery” is some sort of dark cult of meaninglessness), I think she mistakes some of the hallmarks of loosening societal mores for “sexual boredom” limited to unhappy housefraus.

She writes, “Sex has become depersonalized” and cites as a “striking new phenomenon” the “increased and evidently “˜insatiable’ lasciviousness of best-selling novels and periodical fiction, whose audience is primarily female.” Friedan lived well into the age of internet porn; I wonder what she made of that?

Also in The Sex-Seekers, she questions the normality of “cramps with menstruation, nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, depression with childbirth,” among other things, concluding that these “female troubles” are physiological manifestations of the internal stress caused by striving to be a sex kitten at all times. Obviously, research about post-partum depression as it is regarded today was practically non-existent in the 50s and 60s, but I still think the way Friedan toys with correlation/causation in that section is sloppy.

There’s really no point in exploring what Friedan writes about “the homosexual,” though it is frankly asinine, as is much of the “what about the children?” whimpering in Progressive Dehumanization, which blames over-invested, personally un-developed mothers for their childrens’ autism (again, there is a large research gap between the present and 1960, but reading that still grates).

Most of PD smacksof victim-blaming, as it over-extends the argument that symbiotic relationships between mothers and children are harmful (as in life-ruining harmful), presenting little hard data for support. Friedan makes the point that the stripping of identity from mothers is cyclical, in that they pass on their broken nature to their children, but in doing so slips into the very trap she decried in earlier chapters: laying any and every defect of the child at the foot of mother.

I was surprised to find two arguments nearly completely absent from The Feminine Mystique. First, Friedan fails to factor in the effects of religion in keeping women subservient. She briefly touches on the fact that women from Jewish and Catholic families have more difficulty breaking out of the feminine mystique than “other” women, so I can only assume that she considered the Protestant housewife experience the dominant one. Perhaps Friedan found religion so pervasive and relatively unchanging throughout American history, that she considered 20th-century strides in psychiatry and science more influential and worthy of critique? Who knows.

I can attest personally to the fact that most women who feel constrained by the 21st-century version of the feminine mystique are members of religions, Christianity being the most dominant in America, which preach separate roles for men and women (and there’s an entirely separate post brewing about how my female, Christian college friends closely mirror the adrift college women Friedan interviewed for the chapter titled The Sex-Directed Educators).

Secondly, I don’t think Friedan holds men properly accountable for perpetuating the feminine mystique. She blames the media, businesses, educators, and even women themselves, but has great sympathy for the poor men who must deal with “parasitic” wives. She even quotes, without refutation, a study detailing how mothers emotionally castrate their children, concluding that one source of hope is that “the child [would be] rescued by a masculine father-figure.”

No mention is made of the very basic fact that men benefit from having a full-time domestic servant, nor, in her final prescription for women, does Friedan suggest that men pitch in with childcare and housework to alleviate the burden of on-going education and work. I have a very speculative theory about the omission, namely that Friedan, who would later go on to divorce her husband (citing “a marriage that destroyed my self-respect”), was censoring her own negative experience by deliberately avoiding mention of the male role in subjugating women.

Taken as a whole, the good far outweighs the bad in The Feminine Mystique. I had to frequently remind myself that what Friedan was writing was absolutely unheard-of at the time, that she was breaking down barriers in the fabric of society and encouraging a 180-degree turn in the public perception of working women. Ultimately, this is still the definitive primer on the hierarchy of needs for women, and I would highly encourage any woman to read it, as America is certainly not out of the woods yet in regards to sexism and differing standards for working men and women.

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