In The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan asks why so many women have bought into the Feminine Mystique, the notion that women can only be fulfilled as wives and mothers. Based on her interviews with homemakers, she believes that women are discontent with that role, since it’s not allowing them to fulfill their potential. Yet, for some reason, they keep running towards it. As she notes on page 13:
Fewer and fewer women are entering professional work. The shortages in the nursing, social work, and teaching professions caused crises in almost every American city. Concerned over the Soviet Union’s lead in the space race, scientists noted that America’s greatest source of unused brain-power was women. But girls would not study physics: it was “unfeminine.” A girl refused a science fellowship at Johns Hopkins to take a job in a real-estate office. All she wanted, she said, was what every other American woman wanted—to get married, have four children and live in a nice house in a nice suburb.
In what I’ve read of her book so far, Betty Friedan hasn’t really talked about discrimination against women or the exclusion of women from career and educational opportunities—in her time, I mean. (She acknowledges that discrimination existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) That surprises me, for the 1973 manifesto of the National Organization for Women discusses it in detail. Indeed, Ms. Friedan believes that a sexist myth, the Feminine Mystique, is being promoted to women in American society. But she seems to blame women for buying into it, when they don’t have to do so, with all of the opportunities that are available to them. She states on pages 60-61:
It is more than a strange paradox that as all professions are finally open to women in America, “career woman” has become a dirty word; that as higher education becomes available to any woman with the capacity for it, education for women has become so suspect that more and more drop out of high school and college to marry and have babies; that as so many roles in modern society become theirs for the taking, women so insistently confine themselves to one role. Why, with the removal of all the legal, political, economic, and educational barriers that once kept woman from being man’s equal, a person in her own right, an individual free to develop her own potential, should she accept this new image which insists she is not a person but a “woman,” by definition barred from the freedom of human existence and a voice in human destiny?
So why have so many women bought into the Feminine Mystique, according to Betty Friedan? I think that I’ve arrived at Ms. Friedan’s answer in her chapter, “The Passionate Journey.” At the outset, let me say that this is a beautiful and heart-felt chapter, which narrates the history of the women’s movement in nineteenth-twentieth century America. Contrary to the stereotype of feminists that has existed throughout history, many of these women were not man-hating, bitter spinsters. A lot of them were married. Some of them were meek in their demand for the rights that were denied to them—the rights to suffrage, property, education, recognition of their intelligence, etc. Although they faced hostility, religious put-downs, and elected officials who laughed at them and their concerns, they managed to win the respect of male society, and even of their own families, who saw a courage in mom that they hadn’t seen before!
But women needed to get used to the freedom that they earned, and this was a rough process. As Ms. Friedan narrates on page 93:
The first women in business and the professions were thought to be freaks. Insecure in their new freedom, some perhaps feared to be soft or gentle, love, have children, lest they lose their prized independence, lest they be trapped again as their [homemaker] mothers were.
According to Ms. Friedan, the first career women were reacting against their mothers, who had suffered under male domination. In the process, they revolted against anything that was considered feminine: gentleness, love, etc. But what happened to their daughters, the generation after the career women? This new generation of women did not live during the feminist struggle against sexism. Consequently, they didn’t have an image of the traditional woman’s “genteel nothingness” to react against. Ms. Friedan continues on pages 93-94:
…they were finally free to be what they chose to be. But what choice were they offered? In that corner, the fiery, man-eating feminist, the career woman—loveless, alone. In this corner, the gentle wife and mother—loved and protected by her husband, surrounded by her adoring children. Though many daughters continued on the passionate journey that their grandmothers had begun, thousands of others fell out—victims of a mistaken choice. (Emphasis mine.)
This resembles some of the points that Phyllis Schlafly later made in The Power of the Positive Woman: marriage gives you a family to love, which also loves you; women who choose a career over marriage don’t get to enjoy children and grandchildren; feminists are bitter against men. I have to admire Ms. Friedan for her honest assessment of where feminism had come. But what did she want to do with this insight? Did she desire for feminists to be like their forebears in the nineteenth-early twentieth century: fulfilling their potential through a career, while also serving as wives and mothers, who didn’t hate men? And what does she mean by “mistaken choice”? Is she saying that all women have to make the same decision, that something is wrong with a woman who chooses to be a full-time homemaker?