This is the third in a series of posts –the first is here– examining The Feminine Mystique, one of the Library of Congress’ “books that helped shape America”.
Chapter 3: The Crisis in Woman’s Identity
After missing the opportunity to offer something substantive in chapter 2, this third of The Feminine Mystique strikes the match which lights the fire of my contempt for feminist theory. She spends the chapter using the experiences of a very privileged class of women, those with college educations at a time when few including men, even went to college, to claim that women en masse suffered crises of identity.
From her interview with a 17-year-old popular high school girl to one with a woman of middle age, she pronounces a crisis onto something inherent in human nature and feminine nature in particular, regardless of the era or political climate. It would be easy to note that our historical vantage point makes it easier to see how silly it was for her to pretend women were suffering from a new psychological malady, but the evidence was conclusive on the matter far before Friedan burst on to the scene with her analysis.
She starts by recounting how as a young woman, after the news that she had won a graduate fellowship, she was gripped by the question, “Is this really what I want to be?”. From there she launches into all the reasons why women who felt they never had any choice but to become a wife and mother are trapped in the throes of the same dilemma. She then goes on to recall the “old maids” she knew, the female teachers, doctors, etc. who had never married, and knew she didn’t want to be of those women either.
So the women she interviewed and attended college with didn’t want to become their mothers (the horror!) didn’t want to waste their educations, and didn’t want to be old maids, but didn’t want their lives defined by their association with their husbands or as mothers of their children. Her conclusion, hardly novel, was that the crisis of women’s identity was rooted in the fact that women couldn’t have “it all”. She gives a passing nod to the notion that boys and men suffer these same crises of identity, but the topic leaves me cold for several reasons.
As a Christian, I understand that it is foolish to valuate your worth as a person on things temporal and transient. I adore my husband and our marriage has shaped me in more ways than I can count, but he could die tomorrow. I would no longer be a wife. We have been blessed with 5 beautiful offspring, but many women’s wombs are closed despite a deep desires to be mothers. Jobs come and go, and earthly treasures are always at risk of being here today and gone tomorrow.
However, to the extent that the veracity of our character and depth of love is judged, it can only be done through the lens of relationships. The way we love our families, friends, and those closest to us is what matters. Very few of us are going to leave any lasting impact on the world for very long after we are gone, and those we impact most aren’t going to remember us for our educational and professional credentials.
Friedan -as expected- misses the mark by a mile here. What’s worse, she basically confirms the idea that most women want nothing less than fried ice in order to be happy.
Chapter 4: The Passionate Journey
This was a long chapter compared the first three, but it was by far the most interesting because it is chock full of historical notes. Friedan traces the the “passionate journey” of the mid-19th century feminists who fought for women’s rights alongside abolitionists fighting for the emancipation of southern slaves. Starting with the excerpts from grievances against man presented at the Seneca Falls women’s convention of 1848, she attempts to build the case that feminists of that era were simply fighting for women to be acknowledged as fully human, just as men were:
It is a strangely unquestioned perversion of history that the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters, from castrating, unsexed non-women who burned with such envy for the male organ that they wanted to take it away from all men, or destroy them, demanding rights only because they lacked the power to love as women. Mary Wollstonecraft, Angeline Grimke, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Sanger all loved, were loved, and married; many seemed to be as passionate in their relations with lover and husband, in an age when passion in a woman was as forbidden as intelligence, as they were in their battle for woman’s chance to grow to full human stature.
But if they, and those like Susan Anthony, whom fortune or bitter experience turned away from marriage, fought for a chance for woman to fulfill herself, not in relation to man, but as an individual, it was from a need as real and burning as the need for love. (“What woman needs”, said Margaret Fuller, “is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her”.)
The feminists had one image, one image, of a full and free human being: man. p.83-84
From there she goes on to recount the journey of those first wavers, explore the highlights of their activism, and the fervent support one in particular had from her husband. Lucy Stone, who gets a lot of ink in this chapter, is an interesting choice as Friedan’s flagship image of early feminism. Not only was she particularly feminine in appearance of demeanor, but she also reportedly had a passionate love affair with her husband who waited several years for her to consent to marriage. She agonized over the love she felt for him, kept her name, and these were the vows they said at their wedding:
While we acknowledge our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife…we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority. p.93
I have all kinds of thoughts about that, but 1100 words is more than enough. There is a comfort in knowing that King Solomon was right. There really is nothing new under the sun; at least as it relates to human nature.