The Wind in the Reeds

wind in the reeds

The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and a City That Would Not Be Broken, by Wendell Pierce (with Rod Dreher). Originally published in 2015. 352 pages.

I’ve read Rod Dreher’s recommendation of The Wind in the Reeds on more than one occasion, and a recent trip to the library reminded me that I had not read it. I’d always intended to, so I decided that now was as good a time as any to give it a read.

Wendell Pierce is a classically Julliard trained actor of stage and screen. He is best known for his role on a television show called The Wire. I am unfamiliar with the show beyond what he offers in this book, where he delves deeply into his passion for his craft and the importance of art -of all forms- in culture.

Wind in the Reeds is equal parts memoir, regional history, and racial commentary. The regional history is particularly interesting to me as my paternal roots are in Southern Louisiana, the region from which Pierce is offering his readers a history lesson.

The book begins as he flashes back to his 2007 benefit performance of the play Waiting For Godot, which was staged as a free outdoor event to benefit the city of New Orleans in the wake of its devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans is Pierce’s hometown. His family has deep roots there. After his introductory passages which expressed the depth and breadth of his emotions on the opening night of Godot, he pivots, taking the reader back in time with him. He recounts his family’s Louisiana history all the way back to a slave named Aristile who was sold away from his family in Kentucky and taken to a Louisiana sugar plantation sometime in the years preceding the Civil War. I’m going to pivot here; albeit briefly.

I have a bit of fascination with those rare numbers of black families who have a fairly reliable documented history. Whether it’s Pierce’s story, The Delany Sisters, or my husband’s maternal family, which actually has a family historian with a family tree going back nearly 125 years. It’s a short period of time in the grand scheme, but for slave descendants, it’s significant. Few Americans -of any race- know much about their families beyond their great grandparents. I have yet to meet an unsuccessful black family when those historical roots are watered generation after generation. It’s not that every member of such families is wealthy or fully successful, but there are recognizable strings of strong, hard-working, mostly intact families. Wendell Pierce’s family, as he describes it here, is no different.

After laying the foundation of his family’s Louisiana history, the book connects the industrial and racial history of Southern Louisiana as a region. I found that there were parts of Pierce’s commentary I fully agreed with and others where I strenuously disagreed. I am not, however, unfamiliar with this dynamic; the tension many successful blacks feel between their bedrock belief in personal responsibility and hard work and the idea that there is still so much work to be done on behalf of those who haven’t been able to make it in the same way.

In addition to his historical and racial commentary, Pierce uses two chapters to describe his journey to Julliard, the stage, and then the screen. As with the racial and social commentary, I was equal parts intrigued and equal parts unimpressed. Art is crucially important as Pierce rightly notes, but there is a wide chasm between the classic theater that he studied at Julliard and much of the drivel that passes as art today. His noble admonition for artists to eschew the temptation to allow businessmen and bottom-line concerns to trump their creative integrity isn’t a view that seems to be shared in his industry.

As he ends the book, Pierce turns back to where he started; with the devastation that his beloved city endured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and his memories of the shock that awaited him as he flew home that very weekend, thinking that as the storm had hit and left Florida, the crisis had passed. What he didn’t know was that after hitting Florida as a Cat 1 storm, Katrina had re-strengthened to a Cat 5 and was heading straight towards the much more vulnerable basin city of New Orleans. He describes the storm, its aftermath, and its effects on his immediate family, who fared far better than most precisely because of his success as an actor.

This was a moving memoir, and its history was informative and interesting. Despite areas of divergent philosophy or politics, one thing was crystal clear: Wendell Pierce is a man who loves his family and takes great pride in the legacy into which he was born.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, which is only a few days away, I’ll wrap up this review with the same excerpt that Dreher posted over at the American Conservative. In 2009, more than six decades after the end of World War II, Wendell Pierce’s father, Amos Pierce, was finally to take possession of the medals he earned in the war but which were denied him when he returned stateside. You’d think a man who was so slighted by the country he fought and nearly died for would be more than a little bit bitter. Amos Pierce wasn’t, as exemplified by this moment Pierce recalled from his childhood:

This was the late sixties or early seventies, when the Black Power movement was in full swing. That ethos demanded that when the national anthem was played, black people protested by refusing to stand in respect.

That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”

“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.

“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.

“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”

Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy, and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.

That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your f—-ng teeth.”

The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.

That was a powerful recollection that very few of us will be able to relate to as the years go by.

3 out of 5 stars.

Setting the Record Straight

african american history

Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black and White, Kindle edition. Written by David Barton. 190 print pages. Published in 2004.

In this short book chronicling the political history and trajectory of black citizens in America, David Barton sets out to do exactly as its title implies: set the record straight. While Barton, a lay history expert who is highly regarded in Christian circles, has composed a book filled with valuable and often unknown information, I think he falls a little short of his goal when it comes to offering anything revelatory in a general sense.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book, which began its journey in 1787 and concluded with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its political fallout. There were a few rabbit trails onto the subject of abortion, a foundational rail of democrat politics, and other religious conservative issues. These were distracting, but short enough as Barton seemed to quickly return to his primary subject matter. This is a good thing because there is a lot of unknown history relating to the numbers of black U.S. senators and representatives who were elected to Congress during Reconstruction. Many of the quotes from those men’s sermons and speeches are quite inspirational. I appreciated the thoroughly detailed sourcing Barton provided.

What bugged me as I read this book was an underlying assumption than ran through it from beginning to end.  Barton seems to be under the mistaken impression that most of his readers (regardless of race) are ignorant of the fact that up until the 1960s, most black Americans were registered Republicans although their votes were splitting nearly 50/50 from the time of the presidential election of FDR. Conversely, he seems to think most of his readers ignorant of the fact that the Democrat party, until the 1960s, was the party which supported slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow.

I will offer this in the author’s defense. Given the staggering amount of revisionist history, twisted narratives and oversimplification of political arguments as presented by most American media, it’s probably not a stretch to assume that very few Americans who are millennials or younger are aware of this information. The problem with this book is that repeatedly pointing out for over 100 pages that every piece of legislation supporting or contributing to the oppression of black people was initiated by the democrat party will do little to change the hearts or minds of people living in the here and now.

As I read through the book, I was torn between my appreciation of its compilation of records, quotes, and sources documenting the accomplishments and milestones of black American politicians in this country and the nagging sense that the entire purpose of the book was to get me to *see* something that I already knew. I wanted to like it, and there were portions of it that I liked a great deal. I simply would have liked it a lot more if there were fewer attempts to contrast the “evil” Democrat party with the “righteous” Republican Party. If this is a hard sell for someone like me, and I have nothing good to say in defense of the Democrat party, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would come across when read by someone more inclined to view the Democrat party favorably, as most black Americans are.

Barton, a devout Christian, does take the occasional moment to remind his reader that true hope and liberty will never be found in any political party, and I genuinely appreciated the quotes he offered from various theologians and Christian politcos asserting the same. For instance, this quote from Noah Webster was offered as a reminder of principles over party:

In selecting men for office, let principle be your guide. Regard not the particular sect [party] of the candidate- look to his character…It is alleged by men of loose principles or defective views of the subject that religion and morality are not necessary or important qualification for political stations. But the Scriptures teach a different doctrine. They direct [in Exodus 18:21] that rulers should be men “who rule in the fear of God, able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness.”

The most glaring omission from the book is a needed exploration of how and why things changed so drastically in such a short period of time. Specifically, how we reached a point where black voters vote nearly monolithically, to the tune of 90% Democrat, despite the previously strong bond between the Republican party and black Americans in the fight for liberty and civil rights. Barton chooses to gloss over this by signaling LBJ’s signing the Civil Rights Act as the turning point, but the situation was far more complex, and longer in development than this seminal moment in 1964.

As is my custom, I decided I would interject a little bit of information here that would have been helpful had it been in this book. There is a relatively clear, if not necessarily clean path to view when trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of the black American exodus from the Republican Party to the Democrat Party. A very good exposition of the subject can be found at the blog Soul Therapy. In his post, How Blacks Became Democratic: The Myth of Republican Racism, “dathistoryguy” offers a much better understanding than most people are aware of. I highly recommend it for a more accurate, well-rounded perspective.

As for Setting the Record Straight? I’m rating it average for educational value, but only for those who can happily take in all the information and ignore the political demagoguery.

3 out of 5 stars

 

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…