Feminine Mystique 1

Today, I started Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique.  I first learned of this book from an episode of Quantum Leap, which, interestingly, had a couple of good episodes on feminism!  The one I’m thinking about was entitled “Runaway.”  Sam lept into a 13 year-old boy, whose sister was continually tormenting him!  The year was 1964, and his family was on a cross-country trip.  The dad was driving, while the mom was reading Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique.  Sam’s mission was to keep the mom from running away from her family with an old boyfriend, out of discontent with her role as a homemaker.  But it turns out that she didn’t run away at all, but she fell off a cliff.  Fortunately, with Sam’s help, she got rescued, right before he paid back the sister for all of her bad deeds!  And the mother found a way to support her family, while also pursuing other hopes and dreams.

So what is the “feminine mystique”?  Ms. Friedan actually defines it on page 37:

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, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.

And so the “feminine mystique” is a myth that tells women to embrace their natural, God-given, and mysterious role as women—as wives and mothers.  According to this myth, that is the only way that women can find fulfillment in life.  Ms. Friedan’s problem with this widely-propagated myth is that she knows of many women who do not find fulfillment in this role.  They wonder if there’s more to life than taking care of their kids and their husbands.  Many of them went to college and gave up their dreams to have a family.  And, while there are housewives who’ve tried to cure their boredom with hobbies, committees, and PTA events, they feel that their own individuality has been lost in their role as somebody else’s wife or mother. 

From what I can see so far in Ms. Friedan’s book (and my impression is subject to correction as I continue to read it), it wasn’t necessarily the case that women were deemed unintelligent within their traditional role.  On pages 18-19, Ms. Friedan refers to a humorist who said that, before women got the right to vote in the nineteenth century, “she left all her political decisions to her husband and he, in turn, left all the family decisions to her.”  It takes a lot of intelligence to make decisions for the family! 

And, remember Phyllis Schlafly’s statement in her 1977 work, The Power of the Positive Woman, that “A housewife is a home executive: planning, organizing, leading, coordinating, and controlling” (46)?  About thirty years before Mrs. Schlafly wrote that statement, columnist Dorothy Thompson made a similar point in the March 1949 Ladies’ Home Journal.  Although (as Friedan notes) Thompson had a career as a “newspaper woman, foreign correspondent, [and] famous columnist” (36), she had the audacity to tell women that they should celebrate their role as housewives rather than complaining about it.  Thompson states that, if a housewife were to fill out a resume, “You might write: business manager, cook, nurse, chauffeur, dressmaker, interior decorator, accountant, caterer, teacher, private secretary—or just put down philathropist.”  Moreover, Friedan paraphrases Thompson to assert that “The homemaker, the nurturer, the creator of children’s environment is the constant recreator of culture, civilization, and virtue” (36-37).  So, as far as Dorothy Thompson is concerned, women should be proud to be housewives, for such a role demands a lot of intelligence, talent, management skills, and creativity!  But Friedan doesn’t buy it, for she notes that women have had to live vicariously through other people—their husband and kids—and they’ve lost their own identities in the process. 

Friedan’s discussion of Dorothy Thompson challenges the whole narrative of the feminist movement that I had in my head.  My narrative went like this: Although women may have worked outside of the home during World War II, they were mostly homemakers until the 1970’s, when the feminist movement emerged.  A few years earlier, in 1963, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique lambasted the traditional role of women as wives and mothers, saying that women are discontent with it and desire fulfillment outside of the home, within the professional arena.  The feminist movement demanded professional opportunities for women in the 1970’s, and Phyllis Schlafly then came along to say that women should celebrate their traditional role as homemakers.

There may be some truth to my narrative, but where it’s problematic is here: this whole discussion was going on decades before the feminist movement and Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA women even came on the scene!  As early as 1949, women were complaining about their role as wives and mothers, seeing it as boring and unfulfilling.  And Dorothy Thompson was telling them that they didn’t know how good they had it—that it was an honor to be a homemaker!   

Indeed, Betty Friedan observes changing attitudes toward women up to the time that she wrote The Feminine Mystique.  On pages 31-32, she talks about a discussion (presumably in the 1960’s) among magazine writers, and the editor of a women’s magazine said that his audience is interested in family concerns—sex, issues that impact the women’s children, etc.—rather than “national or international affairs.”  He acknowledges that many of his readers have high school and college educations, but he thinks that their primary interest is the domestic sphere.  On pages 32-35, Ms. Friedan contrasts this attitude with the articles in women’s magazines during the late 1930’s and the 1940’s, in which women had “spirit, courage, independence, determination—the strength of character they showed in their work as nurses, teachers, artists, actresses, copywriters, saleswomen” (33).  Men respected women for their passion and self-reliance.  And these stories were written for housewives, who hoped that their daughters would become more than homemakers.

But, when we reach the 1950’s, something happens.  Many women decide to become housewives.  They appear to have bought into the whole “feminine mystique” myth.  But, as Ms. Friedan has learned from interviews with hundreds of women and professionals, there are many women who are discontent in their role, and they can’t identify why (thus the title of Chapter 1, “The Problem That Has No Name”).  Society tells them that housewives are happy, but they don’t feel happy. 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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