Johnny Tremain

johnny tremain

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, originally published in 1943. 320 pages.

This is a historical novel set on the cusp of the American Revolution and is a good fit for middle grade readers, ages 10-13.

Johnny Tremain is a young and talented but arrogant orphan being apprenticed by a highly regarded but aging Boston silversmith. Mr. Lapham, Johnny’s master, has grown so frail and infirm that Johnny basically runs the silversmith shop. The Lapham women, comprised of Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law and her three daughters, feed Johnny’s vanity, treating him like a king because of his extraordinary talent and because he is set to inherit the silversmith business which they all depend on for their livelihood. Mr. Lapham makes every effort to counsel Johnny in the ways of piety and humility, often to no avail.

While violating his master’s rule regarding not working on Sundays, Johnny severely injures his hand trying to fill a rush order for a wealthy client. Just like that, his entire life is turned upside down. He is turned away from the Laphams and the silversmith shop. He is no longer the heir apparent. After many struggles, he finds a new path and a new purpose as the American colonists ramp up their rebellion against the British crown and the Revolution gets underway.

I enjoy well written historical fiction, but this was the first one I’d read in a long time directed toward children. Esther Forbes does a really great job illuminating the different arguments, factions, and issues surrounding the break of the American coloniies as well as the turmoil that it brought upon major port cities such as Boston.

One of the things I enjoyed about Johnny was his wit and his rugged ability to rise to the occasion and survive no matter how rough things got. His understanding of the grave turn life had taken in Boston is revealed in a dialogue he shares with a young woman who belongs to a family loyal to the crown:

“How old are you Johnny” she asked.
“Sixteen.”
“And what’s that-a boy or a man?”
He laughed. “A boy in time of peace and a man in time of war.”

I liked this book. Esther Forbes’ spin on the American Revolution with engaging characters and a story filled with action and intrigue offers a good opportunity to delve deeper into the American Revolution with young readers.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

Discrimination and Disparities

discrimination and disparities

Discrimination and Disparities, by Dr. Thomas Sowell, Kindle edition. Originally published March, 2018. 143 print pages.

Thomas Sowell, among the most brilliant economist and political commentators of our time, was the first voice that resonated with me as I began to formulate my own thoughts about how the world works. His work helped me to intelligently process which policy ideas were worthwhile  and which are actually destructive to society. For the first few years of my adult life, I had accepted a lot of things at face value which turned out, under closer scrutiny in the light of facts, to be fallacious at best, but mostly just ridiculous and dangerous.

This book is particularly exciting for me to share because it is exactly the book I would recommend to anyone who is unfamiliar with Dr. Sowell’s work. Having read many of his books, I can attest that his work is not light reading. You must approach it attentively and prepared to be confronted with boatloads of facts. Dr. Sowell bombards his readers with so much documented research that thinking is required to read his books.

The beauty of this book is that it is perfect for the stunted attention spans of 2019. In fact, if I had to describe it in a concise manner, I would characterize it as a comprehensive Cliff Notes version of Dr. Sowell’s accumulated research on the whys and wherefores of group and individual outcomes. If I had to pick one quote from this book that encapsulates its spirit, it would be this one from page 17:

What can we conclude from all these examples of highly skewed distributions of outcomes around the world? Neither in nature nor among human beings are either equal or randomly distributed outcomes automatic. On the contrary, grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved.

What seems a tenable conclusion is that, as economic historian David S. Landes put it, “The world has never been a level playing field.” The idea that it would be a level playing field, if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts.

You really need to read the entire book to fully appreciate the wealth of insight in that  quote. This is especially true in our world where people are so highly invested in their personal narratives of why the world is the way it is. Whether it is those who insist we can legislate our way to equal distribution of outcomes which are mostly a result of overt, hostile discrimination, or those whose haughty belief in their own superiority cause them to genuinely believe that entire races of people are inferior to other entire races of people, Sowell puts both assertions on the chopping block. Using solid facts and evidence as the ax, both erroneous assumptions lose their heads.

The cool thing about this book, besides its detached and factual approach to a sensitive subject, is that the notes section is extensive. In fact, a full 1/4 of the book is encompassed with notes and research references. In other words, Dr. Sowell doesn’t simply offer up  his clear belief that most inequality of outcomes can be easily directed to causes other than racial, sexual, or class discrimination. He backs it up with facts, then backs up those facts with even more facts.

If you’ve never read Sowell, or tried and gave up under the weight of his intellectual style and overwhelming factual record, this short book is an excellent read to get the gist of why this man is so well respected as a giant in the intersection of economics and political policy. Or why he is so hated by those who prefer that we just make decisions based on whatever makes us feel as if we’re good people.

5 out of 5 stars

 

The Feminine Mystique: Ch. 10

feminine mystique

This is the 6th post in the series on The Feminine Mystique.

I’ve tired of Betty Friedan’s commentary, despite this book being on the list of books that helped shape America. Although I concede that she made a few valid arguments, this book grew increasingly redundant as it went on. I’m not sure if I’ll add any more posts to this series, mainly because the more I read, the more narrow Friedan’s analysis and study appears. I recognized early that her attempt to liberate “American women” had nothing to do with my mother or grandmothers for obvious reasons.

However, I now see it had very little to do with the mothers and grandmothers of my many friends from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and regions of this country. This book, as feminism has always done, speaks for a privileged and elite group of women. The fact that they propagandized their complaints well enough to trick the rest of us into believing that feminism was also about us does nothing to change the ultimate truth. Chapter 10, however, is an interesting one. It’s about a topic that interests me as well, so let’s explore it.

Chapter 10: Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available.

Mrs. Friedan discusses the ways which women -together with the educators, functionality experts and expert marketers- contrived to convert housekeeping from work that “can be capably handled by any eight-year-old child”, to a full-time occupation which takes 6 hours a day to complete. Friedan and one of her experts assert that the work is often incomplete by dinner  despite a wife working diligently all day to complete it:

But when the mystique of feminine fulfillment sent women back home again, housewifery had to expand into a full-time career. Sexual love and motherhood had to become all of life, had to use up, dispose of women’s creative energies. The very nature of family responsibility had to expand to take the place of responsibility to society. As this began to happen, each labor-saving appliance brought a labor-demanding elaboration of housework. Each scientific advance that might have freed women from the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and washing, thereby giving her more time for other purposes, instead imposed new drudgery, until housework not only expanded to fill the time available, but could hardly be done in the available time. p. 286

Here, Friedan parks right alongside a good point. However, due to her adamance that a career was the answer to the disillusion women faced, she missed a valuable opportunity. Instead of denouncing the increasing materialism and isolation of suburban family life, she decided that what women really need is be more like men. Eight years ago a writer friend of mine took an excellent turn at expressing the problems that came with the increase of ‘labor saving” devices, the nuclear family as the center of life to the exclusion of broader community cohesiveness, with emphasis on the sexual domain as the sole purpose of a woman’s life. From her 2011 article, Return of the Washerwoman (link unavailable):

Yes, you have a washing machine in your basement, but you used to only have three changes of clothes per person, and many had their laundry washed for them. I know this for certain, as my aunt’s family used to run a laundry service and she swears that her family washed the laundry for the entire urban neighborhood. Women bought washing machines, which killed the washerwoman business, but then everyone’s wardrobes grew exponentially.

For all of the talk of “pioneer women”, they were a small minority of women and many tended to be dead before they hit 50. Most women 100 years ago were doing a similar level of housework and homeschooling as I am, but they didn’t have to take on the additional chauffeuring duties, they weren’t as isolated, and they weren’t expected to look like a lingerie model and turn tricks in the bedroom that would put some prostitutes to shame. The workdays were also shorter before cheap electric lighting and most people got more sleep.

In other words, Friedan was right about the evolution of the suburban housewife, and she was even right about the changing nature of the work women did in and around the home:

And yet, for the suburban and city housewife, the fact remains that more and more of the jobs that used to be performed in the home have been taken away: canning, baking bread, weaving cloth and making clothes, educating the young, nursing the sick, taking care of the aged. It is possible for women to reverse history- or kid themselves that they can reverse it-by baking their own bread, but the law doesn’t permit them to teach their own children at home, and few housewives would match their so-called generalist’s skills with the professional expertise of doctor and hospital to nurse a child through tonsillitis or pneumonia at home.

A lot has changed since this was written, as most of us can -many do- educate our children at home.  Even the brightest among us, however -and I know a lot of very bright women-find that we are helped immensely in that endeavor by educational support systems which include other women, a point which brings me to the overwhelming flaw in Mrs. Friedan’s conclusion. The flaw is assuming that being a housewife and contributing to the larger world are mutually exclusive endeavors.

Unfortunately, it’s also a trap that a lot of well meaning Christians mistakenly fall into, believing that we can bring back the good old days simply by doing things the ways our grandmothers did them in order to fill the days. Ask any woman who sews her own clothes how expensive it is to purchase high-quality woven fabrics and this notion is quickly disabused. Fortunately, it is possible to “be all you can be” as a woman without doing so on man’s terms nor pretending we can live a 1919 existence in 2019.

Women are supposed to be contributing to society outside of the four walls of our homes, we are supposed to be serving people besides our own immediate families, and we are  to use our gifts, creative energies and talents to the fullest. We should be volunteering in our churches. We should be active in our children’s schools. We should be visiting the elderly and extending ourselves to those in various states of need.

Life has provided me ample opportunities for intellectual stimulation,  to utilize my talents, and to contribute to society in ways I never imagined when I was a 23-year-old  housewife. I spent years living under the delusion that being at home might waste my talents. I realized early on that I could not have been more mistaken.

Mrs. Friedan’s assertion that the only way women contribute or exercise their potential is through careerism is wrong. The dissolution of community and the disappearance of engaged extended families has proven that her prescription, rather than freeing women, has only served to increase their burdens. Women who work, whether at subsistence jobs or in “fulfilling careers”, still have to endure the “drudgery” of housework. It’s just added on as a second shift, and they have to do it without much support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feminine Mystique Ch. 7-9

feminine mystique

This is the fifth post exploring Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. The first four posts are here, here, here, and here.

In chapters 7-9 of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan goes deeper into unpacking the whys and wherefores that created the problem that has no name which she asserted was afflicting so many middle-class American women.

Chapter 7: The Sex-Directed Educators

Here, Friedan floats her hypothesis that one reason so many bright young college co-eds treated college as a boring necessity to appease parents on their way to the altar was that the professors and college administrators had swallowed Freud’s (and functionalist Margaret Mead’s) theories. Namely they accepted the analysis which presented women purely through the lens of their sexuality, and to encourage them towards any interest in the life of the mind was to corrupt them, rendering them useless in their roles as wives and mothers:

If the Freudians and the functionalists [like Margaret Mead] were right, educators were guilty of defeminizing American women, of dooming them to frustration as housewives and mothers, or to celibate careers, to life without orgasm. It was a damning indictment; many college presidents and educational theorists confessed their guilt without a murmur and fell into the sex-directed line. P. 180

I know that there are a lot of people who agree with this view, but I do not, and it’s not because I am a proponent of women en masse directing all of their youthful energy in the pursuit of education and careers. I disagree with it for the very question Friedan raises later on in this particular part of the chapter:

Why do the educators view girls, and only girls, in such completely sexual terms? P.191

I will elaborate on my thoughts in my discussion of chapter 8.

In essence this chapter attempts to make the case that the time after WWII was the death knell of the period of expanded opportunities for women that came occurred before the double tragedies of The Great Depression and WWII. And that the educators helped to facilitate that end in the lives of those women smart and talented enough to attend college.

Chapter 8: The Mistaken Choice

The mistaken choice is an astute and accurate title for the post because often women are offered a falsely dichotomous choice. We are told we must choose between a life devoted fully to hearth, husband and children with no interest in participating in or engaging in any activity outside of those scopes on the one hand. On the other, we’re told that the only way to be completely fulfilled in our gifts and talents is to combine our desire for home and family with a full time career.

Here is where Friedan makes an astute point but where she, and frankly many thinkers and commentators to the far right of her, get it all absolutely, completely wrong. But this is about Friedan, who mistakenly thinks that the answer to women’s problems is to be free to live as men, complete with competing against them in the marketplace. It’s a lose-lose for women because men are always going to be tempted to let women win, and too many of us will find out too late that we’re in over our heads, swimming out of our depths.

This is a mistaken choice, and there is a middle ground, but first, the reason why Friedan believes women chose the former, and in estimation, lesser of the two choices:

After the loneliness of the war and the unspeakableness of the bomb, against the frightening uncertainty, the cold immensity of the changing world, women as well as men sought the comforting reality of home. P. 213

She argues rightfully that it is a mistake for a woman to frame her life in such terms:

The needs of sex and love are undeniably real in men and in women, boys and girls, but why at this time did they seem to so many the only needs? P. 213

One of the things I appreciate my husband for, and this is especially true in recent years, is that he has always encouraged me to build relationships, take breaks when I need them, nurture my gifts and talents, and make an impact on the world around me in ways which are reasonable in the context of my vocation as a wife and mother. If too much time goes by and I haven’t gone to lunch with a friend, or taken time to write, or recently, followed through on my desire to return to school to study a particular thing, he reminds me to do those things. And of course, there is always the necessity to extend ourselves in service to others.

He is acutely in tune with the truth that a day could come prematurely when he is not here to be the center of my activity, no doubt because we have both experienced many deep losses at times that are out of step with the typical trajectory. He doesn’t want me to have a career, but neither does he want me to make a falsely dichotomous choice whereby I am failing as a woman if this house is not the center of my world, which just makes me want to take care better care of him, our home, and our children.

To treat women as though it is immoral not to be completely fulfilled by the activity done while confined within four walls is dehumanizing and burdensome.

There’s an interesting note in this chapter that often gets lost in our current culture (and one that is even glossed over glibly by many when reading Proverbs 31). We forget -or maybe we are simply ignorant of it- that there have always been times in history when it was entirely, expected, accepted, and traditional for women who could afford it to create a saner life for themselves by hiring out household chores to available women who needed the income and were available to do it. Suddenly, after the war, this became something women frowned on:

But in the years of postwar femininity, even women who could afford, and find, a full-time nurse or housekeeper chose to take care of the house and children [entirely] themselves. P.216

Chapter 9: The Sexual Sell

Chapter 9 is basically a deconstruction of Friedan’s belief that a large portion of the influence on women’s choice to abandon finding fulfillment in a life of the mind, intellect, and making a difference in the world can be lain at the feet of advertisers.

She spends a lot of time recalling what she says she learned from a man whose job was to study how to market and monetize the role of an American housewife. The consumerist juggernaut Friedan rightly condemns did what it does:

Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy things for the house. In all the talk of femininity and women’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business. P.243

I’ll wrap this up with a quote Friedan offers from the marketing magnate himself:

Properly manipulated (“if you are not afraid of that word”, he said), American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack—by the buying of things. I suddenly realized the significance of the boast that women wield 75% of the purchasing power in America. P. 245

The irony is that advertisers are still raking in billions a year selling sexual power and security to ever dissatisfied American women, and this remains true regardless of their station in life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Feminine Mystique: Ch 5-6

feminine mystique

This is the fourth post in a series on the Betty Friedan’s seminal feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique. The first post can be read here. Subsequent posts are here and here.

In chapters five and six, Friedan once again puts her fingers on the pulse of something real and true, then bungles the whole thing with a toxic antidote. Chapter 5 discusses at length the work and impact of Sigmund Freud on sexuality, sex roles, and analysis. Chapter 6 follows up with a critique of the social sciences as a whole and their failure in freeing women to be full and complete human beings.

Chapter 5: The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud

Before I get into the analysis, I have to admit that the title of this chapter, given what we know of Freud on even a cursory level, is funny and truthful. I will give Friedan credit for that. Freud’s own twisted view of sex at the center of any and everything we do or think in life was not only wrong, but has reverberated in ways that are still harmful when these subjects arise.

Friedan goes into great detail examining Freud’s life, work, and relationships as documented by by his family members and biographers. This paints a picture of a man who, no matter how brilliant, was quite unhinged on matters of sex. Nothing that I’ve read about Freud leads me to believe she was wrong about that.

She argues that Freud made every attempt to infantilize his wife, whose constitution turned out to be much stronger than he realized. It made, Friedan claimed, for a  difficult marriage which cemented Freud’s conclusions. He believed women incapable of being both feminine (interpreted as a focus on husband, hearth and offspring) and masculine (interpreted as being capable of accomplishing anything else). That in fact, trying to do both creates a neurosis in the female psyche of clinical proportions.

Of course, Friedan finds this highly offensive and this entire long chapter is a well worded screed against Freud and captivity it enabled woman to continue in during a season when she should be experiencing everything the world has to offer her.

I found this ironic. On the one hand, I agree that Freud was damaging to women, yet on the other, I think there is some veracity to the notion that women’s attempts to put energy into both family and career creates in us a neurosis. It ‘s a neurosis that men, for reasons I cannot begin to know, don’t seem to be burdened with while establishing careers and building a family simultaneously.

I didn’t say that I believe women are only suited to bread baking and baby bearing. I just think that 60 years of feminist progress has proven part of Freud’s assertion to be true. Friedan would argue that this neurosis happens because we’ve been made to feel guilty when we try to do both, but I disagree. There is something in the feminine psyche, a feminine mystique if you will, that doesn’t like being pulled in these two different directions.

Freud’s theory of “penis envy” is of course, patently absurd on its face. So much so that I cannot deign to discuss it and agree with Friedan that it only poisoned the well of what could have been a substantive conversation on the roots of “the female problem”. I chalk it up to being a daughter of Eve but this is not the discussion we’re having at the moment. I will end the discussion of chapter 5 with this quote, which I agree with Friedan much more than I’d care to admit, and I’ll explain why in the next portion on chapter 6:

It was as if Freud’s Victorian image of woman became more real than the twentieth-century women to whom it was applied. Freud’s theory of femininity was seized in America with such literalness that women today were considered no different than Victorian women. The real injustices life held for women a century ago, were dismissed as mere rationalizations of penis envy. And the real opportunities life offered to women now, compared to women then, were forbidden in the name of penis envy.

Chapter 6: The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead

As I read this book I keep -you may notice- coming back around to the phrase, “finger on the pulse of a true problem while offering a toxic prescription”. I suspect that this is because my Christian worldview refuses to allow me to see anyone as a biological tool designed to function apart from the living soul which was breathed into us by the Creator of the universe. This brings me to Friedan’s continuing critique of the social sciences in chapter 6.

In chapter 6 Friedan makes the point that social scientists including Margaret Mead, piggybacked on Freud’s initial conclusions while trying to avoid his unscientific value judgements. They began to embrace what they referred to as functionalism:

In practice, functionalism was less a scientific movement than a scientific word-game. “The function is” was often translated “the function should be”; the social scientists did not recognize their own prejudices in functional disguise any more than the analysts recognized theirs in Freudian disguise. By giving an absolute meaning and a sanctimonious value to the term “woman’s role”, functionalism put American women into a kind of deep freeze- like Sleeping Beauties, waiting for a Prince Charming to waken them, while all around the magic circle the world moved on.

On the one hand, she has a point. Reducing any person, male or female to the sum total of their biological functions is an affront to the God who made us spirit, soul, and body. However, because it is clear that Friedan decided that the way to integrate all of these parts was to strive for worldly and career recognition rather than pour our energies into loving and serving our fellow man, she only gets half credit for her observation. As in math, missing one critical decimal point renders everything after it, including the solution, incorrect and useless.

It’s true that relegating woman to the sum total of her ovaries and uterus being put to use keeps women from growing up in ways that make them proper and valuable wives in other ways. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned with that aspect of a woman’s growing up.

It’s too bad, because failure to acknowledge the true importance of being an effective wife and mother, of focusing on education and careers while dismissing biological realities and differences, has still left us with a generation of women who never grow up. She and her second wave sisters dropped the ball terribly. See today’s screechy, activist, empowered women for evidence.

I really enjoyed this quote while being struck by the overwhelming irony of it, so I’ll end with it:

But why would any social scientist, with godlike manipulative authority, take it upon himself -or herself- to protect women from the pains of growing up?

Why indeed? Of course, these “pains of growing up” necessarily include accepting reality, including biological realities.

Until next time…

 

 

 

The Feminine Mystique Chapters 3-4

feminine mystique

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.

The Feminine Mystique: Chapters 1-2

feminine mystique

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.