Re-reading The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan.

Betty Friedan.

 “The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”

So begins the first chapter - “The Problem That Has No Name” - of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which has just turned 50.

It would be naff of me to lean back in my chair, mop my brow, and with amazement exclaim “I can’t believe it’s been five decades!”, given that I’ve only been alive for 31 years. On the other hand, you don’t have to be 70 years old to appreciate the fact that it’s been 50 years since The Feminine Mystique helped kickstart second wave feminism; it is quite a milestone.

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But milestones can quickly become millstones, and on the book’s 50th anniversary - as well as on International Women’s Day 2013, women’s liberation’s annual general meeting - it’s worth taking stock of The Feminine Mystique’s enduring influence.

In looking back at seminal texts - in any field, be it psychology, science, or in this case, feminism - the main question asked tends to be “Is this still relevant?” and, if we are being honest, the answer will in all but the most exceptional cases be “no”.

In the case of The Feminine Mystique, much has changed since 1963, and there was undoubtedly plenty that Friedan didn’t cover even then: it was unquestionably a text that explored an experience predominantly relevant to middle-class white women. To point that out is not to diminish the particular hell that university-educated women found themselves in in the early-’60s - i.e. trapped in suburbia, playing housewife - but whatever its psychic woes, that situation was certainly not the worst place a woman could find herself in.

In her balanced introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Friedan’s book, New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes: “[A]lthough Friedan was writing during the civil rights movement, she barely mentions African-American women. Working-class women make their appearance mainly in a few suggestions that married women who want to work might want to hire a housekeeper or a nanny. Remarkably, Friedan managed to write a whole book indicting American society for its attitudes toward women without discussing its laws. In 1963, most women weren’t able to get credit without a male co-signer. In some states they couldn’t sit on juries; in others, their husbands had control not only of their property but also of their earnings.”

However, it’s not a long bow to draw to trace a path from The Feminine Mystique to the sort of 21st century feminism that, even in this supposedly enlightened age, still ignores and marginalises women who aren’t white and middle class. If the recent behaviour of noted feminist commentators like Caitlin Moran, Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill is anything to go by, mainstream feminism (which is, inevitably, white feminism) is in danger of becoming just as stodgy an old guard as the patriarchy the movement sprung up to dismantle in the first place.

There is often a sense that to not have read certain feminist texts represents a failing in one’s commitment to the movement’s ideals. Certainly there are some big titles that I have tired of midway through, and other less seminal ones that have really blown my mind. The Feminine Mystique was never at the top of my list of favourites; in my youthful insouciance I felt I’d already received a better education in the plight of American housewives from Stephen Sondheim’s blistering The Ladies Who Lunch, and the blood-curdling original Stepford Wives.

I was encouraged somewhat to see literary and film critic Janet Maslin admit in an oped on the topic last month that she had only recently read The Feminine Mystique: “By the time I became a journalist, Friedan’s sleepwalking housewives were so long gone that I could enter the professional world with a short memory and an undisguised advantage.”

When I was about 15, a huge box of feminist books turned up at the local church op-shop. All the accepted classics were represented (The Female Eunuch, Fat Is A Feminist Issue, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and so on) as well as a few oddities (a 1950s-published history of gender-bending entitled The Mysteries Of Sex), and I devoured them all. It was clear even then that there was much about all of the books that had become outdated, but there were also plenty of kernels of truth - and, importantly, the “aha!” moments that Collins’ introductory essay speaks about.

Acknowledging that a text is no longer relevant (“relevant” in its most literal definition) doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. Indeed, many of the seminal feminist texts have tarnished somewhat with age; they are still a vital grounding in the history of the movement. They are important to read to see how far we’ve come (and how far we still have to go).

Like Maslin’s five-decades-late-to-the-party reading of Friedan’s text, my relationship with the book was piecemeal and on-off, read in spurts and never quite finished. But I’m less concerned with the enduring legacy of The Feminine Mystique than I am about the texts we don’t read because the dominant feminist commentary still posits variations on The Problem With No Name as the most compelling issues facing women. I wish that op-shop box of books had included bell hooks and Julia Serano and Angela Davis, too. I wish that the prominent Voices Of Feminism weren’t so often lacking in understanding of intersectional issues.

Fifty years from The Feminine Mystique, we shouldn’t be afraid to assess the state of mainstream feminism and ask the silent question, “Is this all?”

7 comments

  • I must admit, my education on feminism is predominately shaped by Simone de Beauvoir. The basic premise that any individual seeks to exert their will and make something of themselves is fairly resounding. Having social structures that narrow the scope of achievement makes sense a cause of women's situation.
    But then, I'm probably just as heavily shaped by reading a whole bunch of behavioural science before that. Stanley Milgram prepares you to accept that any human being can have their own personal ethics destroyed by a toxic social structure.

    Both these authors would be considered outdated in their respective fields - existentialism is old hat and the advent of fMRI and other technologies has led neuroscientists to proclaim that the old behaviourists were guessing from shadow puppets.

    But even if these things aren't explicitly relevant today, they laid the foundations for those that followed. Going back to review those foundations, to critique them, and to reconstruct from them, is not a bad thing. Some of the people who have done just that construct the next foundation for those that follow them.

    Commenter
    Lucid Fugue
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    March 08, 2013, 10:27AM
    • Clem I think one of the biggest issues now for me is that men (and women) don't know what feminists want. Hell, we're not even sure that feminists know what they want because there seem to be a lot of competing and contradictory demands. I realise that there is very rarely just one voice speaking for a movement but when there are a lot of voices, some of whom seem to be more about blaming men for everything rather than saying what they want men and society as a whole to do, then the message tends to get marginalised.

      Obviously this website is great for putting forward the feminist point of view but even then there seem to be a lot of differing opinions about what women want, and the details of how to get from here to there is very much lacking. Things don't just change, there has to be a plan and a framework for how to make things happen and from what I read on this website that doesn't appear to be the case.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      March 08, 2013, 10:43AM
      • I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with competing and contradictory voices in a movement. I think open and honest debate and disagreement is vital to allowing something to grow, adapt and improve.

        What's important is that those voices accept that other viewpoints (both inside and outside the movement) can have validity, and don't dismiss those opinions out-of-hand because they differ from the one 'correct' way to see things. As another article on this website today points out, silencing participation of alternate viewpoints is a tactic used to alter perception of a viewpoint's validity.

        http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/are-womens-voices-being-gagged-20130307-2fnff.html

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        March 08, 2013, 12:09PM
      • @DM - Excellent points but I think that the feminist movement has been around long enough that there should be a fairly consistent message as to what is wanted and a plan for how to get there. That doesn't seem to be the case. I would speculate that perhaps that is because a lot has already been achieved such as the right to vote, work, receive equal pay etc and now the challenges are more nebulous and therefore the message is not as consistent as what I would prefer, but in any case I feel that it makes it far more difficult for others to understand what it is that feminists want when they hear so many different voices asking for different things.

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        March 08, 2013, 5:06PM
    • I read my mother's copy of "The Feminine Mystique" in my teens. I'd previously read "The Female Eunuch" (which was a bit of an eye-opener at 14, I can tell you!) but oddly Friedan's book made me appreciate how 'bad' things were back in the 50s/60s more than Greer's angry writing.

      Unfortunately, it's still relevant today. A few days ago I was reading comments on a forum thread about how if only women would go back to 'traditional' roles the unemployment rate (i.e., for men) would go down. Quite a few (men, obviously) actually supported this statement.

      As for black/minority women not having a voice, I don't think Friedan was being deliberately exclusionist. We all tend to write about things from our own personal experience - Friedan is a middle-class white woman and presumably so were most of her friends. I imagine most white people would struggle to appreciate the discrimination that non-whites still face even in so-called progressive society, just as many men think that things have gone 'far enough' (some even 'too far'!) with respect to equality for women.

      We do need more non-white feminist voices. I'd especially like to hear more from Aboriginal women - is this something DL can do something about?

      Commenter
      Kate
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      March 08, 2013, 11:27AM
      • Clem this is the most well-written piece I have read by you and I would agree that - of course - discourse and advocacy for a post-sexist world is more than just the call to rescue educated and relatively privileged women from the enforced hell (for them) of "housewifery". But that is part of it - no? - and Ms Friedan had her say. The wider struggle continues - yes? - with numerous voices and actors.

        Well done.

        Please forgive me for any harsh words I may have directed towards your work in the past.

        Happy Women's Day to you and your readers!

        Commenter
        GRW Dasign
        Location
        Abbotsford
        Date and time
        March 08, 2013, 1:20PM
        • Happy International Women's Day Clem.

          I liked this article because it offers an insight into the development and evolution of theory and philosophy - it is relevant to any theory: scientific or social.

          Commenter
          Pax
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          March 08, 2013, 2:50PM
          Comments are now closed