The Feminine Mystique: Questioning and Upholding Biases

Sorry for the long pause between entries.  Life happened, and then there was, ah, a bit of a hurricane. I still don’t have power—thank goodness for local public libraries. In any case….

Cover of The Feminine Mystique

Title: The Feminine Mystique

Author: Betty Friedan

Date of Publication: 1963

LC Call Number: HQ 1420 .F7

Oh, Betty Friedan, you are such a creature of your time.

This is actually my second time reading The Feminine Mystique, and I feel like a much more sophisticated feminist now.  So I really wanted to still like it, even though I’d heard that a lot of feminists don’t… and there are some things I do really like about it. And a lot of things that I don’t.

The Feminine Mystique argues, over the length of some 400 pages, that it is unreasonable to build society upon the expectation that men will go to work and women will stay at home to form the stereotypical 1950s white middle-class nuclear family.  I’m reading this is 2012 and the argument that seemed so urgent to Friedan in 1963 is a little less relevant now, although there are still some weird resonances.  But what’s interesting here is the way that she makes her arguments. As I wrote above… she’s a creature of her time. She’s a highly educated white woman who writes from a perspective of social privilege, financial security, and the many assumptions that were probably common among educated people of the time but which seem pretty obviously racist/classist/homophobic now.  So as a reader, you have to take her for what she is, and reading her after having read bell hooks leaves some obvious criticisms ringing in one’s head.

So.  It’s been said elsewhere, and so often that I don’t even know where, that her focus is very narrow here; when she says “women” she does indeed mean “middle-to-upper-class educated white women.”  This is true, and I do, actually, think it is worthwhile to point out how an ideology can fail even those who are supposed to be most privileged within it, so such a focus is kind of okay, though of course she should have been more explicit about it. However, this isn’t the bottom of her racism. She buys into a lot of ideas that, again, I’m sure were current at the time, but that I can’t read without wincing. There is a chapter on anthropology and Margaret Mead, which she points to as one of the sources of pressure for women to devote themselves to being housewives.  She recognizes that anthropology has been used to create this rhetorical trope about the natural role of women, but as she analyzes this, she doesn’t realize that she is simultaneously reinforcing racism which also finds its roots, or some of them, in anthropological thought. So she goes on about “primitive societies” and writes things like this:

Our increasing knowledge, the increasing potency of the human intelligence, has given us an awareness of purposes and goals beyond the simple biological needs of hunger, thirst, and sex. Even these simple needs, in men or women today, are not the same as they were in the Stone Age or in the South Sea cultures, because they are now part of a more complex pattern of human life. (144)

Her language is fairly neutral here, but she’s essentially saying that the people of the South Sea are less complex, have no goals in life, and that their culture is based only on fulfilling basic biological needs.  It gets a little “noble savage” throughout this chapter, and the irritating thing about it is that she isn’t attempting to make an argument about the nature of non-Western culture; they’re just a background “other” against which to define American women.  Throughout the book, while focusing on women like herself, she frequently invokes  “other” women—lower class women, or at one point, Catholic and Jewish women—in order to make points about what women can do, while leaving them out of her argument about what is good for women almost entirely.  To invoke the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike in a book about the need for women to do wage-earning work, but without discussing labor history or working conditions or even the need to earn money is surely a little… tone-deaf.  (and then there’s the ever-popular concentration camp metaphor. Blergh.)

She has other, more obvious biases, as well.  She is much interested in sexuality, but she comes at it from a pretty prescriptive point of view (of course women should get married! But they should do this at a specific age! They shouldn’t be promiscuous! Divorce is bad!)  and ends up addressing homosexuality in a way that made me actually angry: “The shallow unreality, immaturity, promiscuity, lack of lasting human satisfaction that characterize the homosexual’s sex life usually characterize all his life and interests” (276). Um. Wow.  I didn’t throw the book across the room, because I was on a train, but Friedan lost a lot of credibility for me at that moment, and I started scrutinizing a lot of the things she was saying a little more critically.

So yes, I don’t like how she treats those who fall outside of her little paradigm of what she thinks American life is, but nevertheless, she does make some valuable arguments. She knows that a vicarious life, such as the one that women were (are?) encouraged to live, is not satisfying. She punctures the image of the happy nuclear family with stories about affairs, drugs, and child abuse. She writes fairly blisteringly about the idea of “adjustment,” which stated that if women are unhappy living through their children and spending all their time on housework, then they need to learn to become happy with it. At her best, Friedan argues that the problem is with the system and not with the women who do not fit into it, asking why her society asks women to adjust to a life which does not make them happy.  Instead, she calls for a society in which women are encouraged to pursue their “needs for identity, for self-esteem, for achievement, and finally for expression of her unique human individuality” (315) instead of being pressured into seeing their children as the only outlet for any of these needs. I can certainly get behind that. These things are really important.  At the same time, though, I realize that seeing work as a way to achieve all these needs is the product of a very privileged view of the world. There are a couple points in the book where Friedan argues that (implicitly middle-class) families should feel free to bring in a cleaning woman so that mothers can go out into the world and do all these wonderful things, and I wonder, is the cleaning woman fulfilled? How does she express her unique human individuality?

Friedan doesn’t answer this question, because it’s a little more radical than she wants to get.  In fact, she doesn’t appear to make many substantive changes to society at all. This becomes obvious when she writes that part-time college work “is the only way a woman with husband and children can get, or continue, an education” (371).  The only way, really? Allowing part-time study is obviously important for lots of reasons, but it’s one of those moments where I stopped and thought about how she would never have said that about young fathers.  Hmm. As I say, not very radical.  Still, it’s an important book, if a frustrating one, and I appreciate her challenges to the culture in which she is still very obviously immersed.

Those of you who, like me, read this for A Year of Feminist Classics may want to check out Stephanie Coontz’s The Way we Never Were for a historical perspective on this time period.

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1 Comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

One response to “The Feminine Mystique: Questioning and Upholding Biases

  1. Excellent analysis of the weaknesses of this book and its powerful affect which says lots about the post-war, white, middle-class women who responded to her. I didn’t reread it last month because I didn’t want to re-experience my anger.
    Coontz is a good suggestion. So is Wini Breines’ Young, White, and Miserable.

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