This month, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” celebrates 50 years of influence.
In 2013, we live in the world Friedan built. More women go to, and graduate from, college than men. Hanna Rosin’s recent book “The End of Men” trumpets that women dominate 20 of the 30 fastest growing sectors of the economy.
Precisely because Friedan seems triumphant, it is necessary to examine her message more closely. Is Friedan’s renown warranted? Are her ideas structurally sound?
For me, this question is not just an idle, intellectual curiosity. My mother was a housewife. She stayed home and raised me and my brothers. I’m a working girl — I should cheer Friedan’s message. Yet my close reading of “The Feminine Mystique” exposed some flawed premises about women’s humanity and their role in the world.
Friedan objects that the housewife role isn’t fulfilling for women. Housewives spend their days performing monotonous tasks: washing dishes, changing sheets and chauffeuring children. According to Friedan, the “feminine mystique” tricks them into this way of life. It is a culturally implied argument about women and their role in society, which tells women that their “highest value and the only commitment … is the fulfillment of their own femininity.” The ideal role for a woman is that of suburban housewife: “healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, and her home.” As a result of the mystique, women suffer from “the problem with no name”: a lingering boredom and dissatisfaction.
Friedan devotes much of her book to analyzing the sources of the mystique: including women’s magazines, advertisers, educators, Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead. Examining these sources 50 years later, Friedan’s arguments range from mundane to laughable: women’s magazines are frivolous; why doesn’t the pie-mix ad tell women to be astronomers; Freud was a terrible husband; Mead had the wrong conclusions. She argues that the mystique creates a sort of false consciousness: It deceives a housewife into thinking that she’s an “equal partner to man in his world.”
Not true, Friedan says. Housewives are not equal to men. While men are engaged in human work, housewives putter around their comfortable concentration camp. Of course, suburban women aren’t marching off to the slaughter. She used the image of a concentration camp because housewives, like prisoners, are “forced to spend their days in work” that is “monotonous, endless,” that involves “no mental concentration,” offers “no hope of advancement or recognition” and is “controlled by the needs of others.” The concentration camp image clarifies Friedan’s key premise: Women are not human in the housewife role.
Women live through their children and husbands, resulting in familial and societal decay. Children become intellectually lethargic. The celebration of femininity pushes daughters into promiscuity and sons into homosexuality (a bad thing, according to Friedan). Husbands resent their wives and divorce them.
Friedan’s solution is for women to become human: They need college degrees and interesting work that shapes the future and realizes their full human capacities.
Friedan’s view of fulfilling work proves quite rigid. To be serious about work, women must be “away from home to do it.” Friedan favors a “no-nonsense nine-to-five job with clear division between professional work and housework.” Even a freelance writing job is “one of the semi-delusions of the feminine mystique.”
Friedan has two main thrusts: The problem, which is the elusive “feminine mystique” and all its attendant misery; and the solution, which is jobs for women, to allow them to achieve their “full human capacities.”
On the problem front, the feminine mystique doesn’t explain why women are returning home from the 21st-century workforce. Anne-Marie Slaughter quit her dream job at the State Department to spend more time with her teenage son. In November 2012, an overworked attorney resigned, explaining that traffic jams, interminable task lists and three hours of sleep were unsustainable. Margaret Mead and pie-mix ads were irrelevant to these decisions.
On the solution front, Friedan neglects to mention even rewarding jobs have unpleasant aspects, such as attending meetings, drafting memos and managing people. Every job can become monotonous, with the same people, office, projects or problems. (Moreover, if being human depends on your job, what would Friedan say to the roughly 12 million unemployed men and women?)
To escape the monotony of the office, many women pursue domestic hobbies. Following the release of “Julie and Julia,” a 2009 movie about a 30-something woman with a dead-end job who finds inspiration in life by making boeuf bourguignon, sales spiked for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Myriad blogs, magazines and television shows help women cook, organize and decorate.
My female professional friends—liberal and conservative—compare recipes, flaunt homemade quilts and knit everything from scarves to toys. Are we surrendering our humanity, or is there more to being human than a nine-to-five job?
To be sure, raising children can be frustrating. My mother became a homemaker to raise three children. She taught us to read, analyze Shakespeare, bake and, above all, work hard. When the city school system failed, my mother started homeschooling. Sure, it was tempting to obsess about the boring parts of motherhood. Yet she had perspective: Her goal was to make us into responsible, educated adults.
The argument of “The Feminine Mystique” is not worth celebrating. Friedan did not write a manifesto advocating for women to have the opportunity to get out of the house, get an education and get jobs. No, Friedan’s fundamental premise is that women must do these things to be considered human. In other words, women who do what women have been doing for millennia—tending house and caring for their families—are sub-human. What’s more, they are ruining society. Her support for these incendiary claims? A critical reading of Ladies’ Home Journal and Freud.
To 21st-century women who have begun to see through the flimsy arguments: It’s time to reassess. We don’t need to go back to the 1950s, but we can’t stay here.
Julia Shaw is a writer in Washington D.C.
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