For this write-up of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), I’ll post my four favorite passages from today’s reading, along with my comments.
1. Page 100: Freud’s mother was the pretty, docile bride of a man twice her age; his father ruled the family with an autocratic authority traditional in Jewish families during those centuries of persecution when the fathers were seldom able to establish authority in the outside world. His mother adored the young Sigmund, her first son, and thought him mystically destined for greatness; she seemed to exist only to gratify his only wish. His own memories of the sexual jealousy he felt for his father, whose wishes she also gratified, were the basis of this theory of the Oedipus complex. With his wife, as with his mother and sisters, his needs, his desires, his wishes, were the sun around which the household revolved. When the noise of his sisters’ practicing the piano interrupted his studies, “the piano disappeared,” Anna Freud recalled years later, “and with it all opportunities for his sisters to become musicians.”
I appreciated this background story on Sigmund Freud. But I really feel sorry for Freud’s sisters!
2. Page 110: Even if Freud and his contemporaries considered women inferior by God-given, irrevocable nature, science does not justify such a view today. That inferiority, we now know, was caused by their lack of education, their confinement to the home. Today, when women’s equal intelligence has been proved by science, when their equal capacity in every sphere except sheer muscular strength has been demonstrated, a theory explicitly based on woman’s natural inferiority would seem as ridiculous as it is hypocritical. But that remains the basis of Freud’s theory of women, despite the mask of timeless sexual truth which disguises its elaborations today.
In The Power of the Positive Woman (1977), a point that Phyllis Schlafly makes over and over again is that men are physically stronger than women. For her, that’s why feminists are wrong to assume that there are no differences between the sexes. In Schlafly’s view, that’s also why the Equal Rights Amendment is wrong when it seeks to impose absolute equality on laws, businesses, and institutions—to place women in combat units in the military, to require them to lift the same amount as men in factories, and the list goes on. Mrs. Schlafly has no problem with viewing women as intelligent, but she thinks that it’s wrong-headed to treat women as man’s equal in every respect, when men can do certain things better on account of their superior strength.
I wonder how Betty Friedan addressed that point, especially considering that she acknowledged that men are superior to women in terms of “sheer muscular strength.”
Of course, we can’t speak in absolutes. I’m sure there are women who can beat me up!
3. Page 110: Because Freud’s followers could only see woman in the image defined by Freud—inferior, childish, helpless, with no possibility of happiness unless she adjusted to being man’s passive object,—they wanted to help women get rid of their suppressed envy, their neurotic desire to be equal. They wanted to help women find sexual fulfillment as women, by affirming their natural inferiority.
This, in a nutshell, is Friedan’s problems with Sigmund Freud’s legacy. She talks at length about Sigmund Freud’s belief that women have “penis envy”—that they are jealous of men because men have a penis, and that’s what underlies women’s desire for equality. But Freud doesn’t regard such envy as all that healthy. And Ms. Friedan resents how women’s desires for equality have been casually brushed off as mere “penis envy.”
To be honest, there is much in Friedan’s chapter on Freud that I do not understand, probably because Freud was a complex figure. Freud blamed all sorts of problems on sexual repression, yet he himself didn’t have much of a sexual appetite. Freud thought that women were handicapped by their obsessive penis envy, a disadvantange that men did not have; yet, Freud also thought that men resented their fathers and feared castration. Couldn’t those sorts of attitudes handicap a man, as penis envy holds women back from happiness? Freud viewed women as childish, yet he also hung around with strong, intelligent women, whom (as far as I can tell from Ms. Friedan’s book) he treated as his intellectual equals. And, on page 112, Friedan states that Freud didn’t equate femininity with passivity and masculinity with activity, but that one of his heirs, female psychologist Helene Deutsch, did. So how much of the sexism in Freud’s legacy was actually the fault of Freud?
Moreover, Freud’s concept of “penis envy” among women reminds me of an idea that I’ve read in feminist writings: that men oppress women out of jealousy, for men are unhappy that women can give birth, whereas men cannot.
4. Pages 118-119: If an old-fashioned grandfather frowned at Nora, who is studying calculus because she wants to be a physicist, and muttered, “Woman’s place is in the home,” Nora would laugh impatiently. “Grandpa, this is 1963.” But she does not laugh at the urbane pipe-smoking professor of sociology, or the book by Margaret Mead, or the definitive two-volume reference on female sexuality, when they tell her the same thing. The complex, mysterious language of functionalism, Freudian psychology, and cultural anthropology hides from her the fact that they say this with not much more basis than grandpa.
I appreciate Ms. Friedan’s whack on intellectuals here! I often wonder why certain ideas are not questioned, or why I should regard the assumptions of an intellectual elite to be sacrosanct.
One thing that’s ironic, though: according to Ms. Friedan, it is intelligent women, such as Helene Deutsch and Margaret Mead, who have perpetuated the sexist “Feminine Mystique,” giving it intellectual credence. What’s up with that?