The first in a series of posts examining the seminal feminist manifesto in detail. The introductory post can be found here.
Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name
Friedan begins by describing a general sensation of malaise and disquietude in American women, particularly those who seem to have it all. She describes a level of discontent and unhappiness which, she determines, at its root can be encapsulated in one question: Is this all there is?
A crop of women who emerged from colleges harboring dreams of a future which resembled the the feminist ideal of the New Woman, were suddenly living the life of an ordinary woman. Unlike the New Woman, who was in control of her professional, economic, and social life, these women lived the exact opposite of the lives they’d dreamed of. The jarring realization that they were defined solely through the lens of wife and motherhood induced a psychological crisis as a result of being “just housewives”.
Suffering no material lack their lives were quite comfortable. Nevertheless they were, according to Friedan, turning to psychoanalysts in large numbers for help with this indescribable problem of emptiness and lives bereft of meaning.
My initial response was two-fold. The first is that most of these women were, in two words, spoiled and bored. There is no other way to describe being dissatisfied despite having everything you need and more besides.
That thought which followed was the fantastical notion of her narrative as normative. It certainly wasn’t any experience my grandmothers could have related to. The pampered home life, that Friedan described as the bane of the American woman’s existence was foreign to no less than 1/3 of women, including married women, and probably a larger percentage than that.
Few ordinary women lived lives of ease with no concerns of contributing to their family’s bottom line. Prior to the economic boom that followed WWII, this was not the experience of the average woman, and it had nothing to do with feminism. Proverbs 30: 8-9 was the standard mode of living for most families. Most married women, even when primarily focused on home and hearth, rarely had the privilege that came with being a housewife; at least not in the way we have been conditioned to view the station from the 1950s onward.
Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine
In this chapter, Friedan starts to make at least one cogent argument, even if she gets a lot of things wrong. But first it is here where she actually describes the so-called Feminine Mystique:
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, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. p.35
It bears noting that the whole point of this book is to rebut the very notion of this feminine mystique, and its irony is not lost on me. We do derive a large part of our identity through our femininity, but not in the way that Friedan describes. Those who, well-intentioned they may be, believe that this “feminine mystique” is an appropriate aspirational end for women also err, albeit too far in the other direction.
Friedan offers a surfeit of supporting evidence using content from ladies’ magazines, which was the dominant media directed at women during the 1950s. It was determined that women would read magazines, but not books so periodicals such as Redbook, McCall’s, and Ladies Home Journal grew hugely popular.
Prior to the post WWII boom, propelled by the gains women enjoyed due to the work of the women’s rights activists of the 1910s and 1920s, the media of the 1940s heavily featured aspects of the New Woman. The New Woman was independent, making her way in the world, and enjoying the benefits of new opportunities available to her in both work and politics. She was the feminist ideal encompassing all that women wanted to be, and was prominently featured by writers in the 30s and 40s.
Suddenly, in the 1950s, Friedan notes, magazines and the few books marketed to women switched on a dime with most featuring what she called the “happy housewife heroine”. Despite being a housewife myself, the excerpts and descriptions from the articles and stories she quoted left me scratching my head. What man worth anything would want such a vapid, incompetent woman for a wife? They made it far too easy for her ideas to catch fire.
As the chapter progressed an interesting dichotomy emerged. Friedan’s answer to mystery of how genuinely interesting news content and stories of adventurous, independent women of the 1940s gave way to the consumer drivel, beauty tips and the “happy housewife heroine” of the 1950s turned out not to be much of a mystery at all.
The authors of the1940s periodicals were mostly female, as the men in the country were fighting or recovering from the battles of WWII. After they returned home, replacing the women who went home to marry and start families in the aftermath of the war, the material they published revealed a starkly different image of ideal womanhood. It reflected the idea of woman as a place of solace, respite, and sex after the harsh war years.
Both ideals as presented were damaging and more than a little ridiculous, but we’ll get more into that as we move through the book. I hardly need to read further to see where the train went off the track, but for you guys, I’ll forge on. Who knows? I might be surprised and learn something.