Friday, February 10, 2006

Of Friedan's Era

Commenting on the Open Air Radio blog about last night's program on Betty Friedan and feminism trigggered a thought in my head, a thought I've had many times before, but never long enough to write about it on the blog, and this thought is how poorly we really understand the era that Betty Friedan wrote about, its values and what it meant to be a housewife in those days. When we discuss the question of stay-at-home-mothers and working-mothers (while still mostly not mentioning fathers of any type) we discuss it within our own experiences and value frameworks and we end up not speaking about the "problem with no name" that Friedan's Feminine Mystique revealed and defined.

I have noticed it often, especially by anti-feminist commentators, but I have not talked about it before because it is not feasible to grab you, my dear readers, by the neck, and to plunk you into the 1950's America. Unless you actually lived through it, all information you get is from published sources, and it's not realistic to try to give enough of those in one blog post to give you the flavor of the era.

What I will try instead is to summarize some of the key aspects of a housewife's life in those days, aspects, which we need to understand to understand Friedan's arguments. I've picked these from my fairly extensive readings about the 1950's as useful in explaining the Feminine Mystique. They are not to be regarded as an unbiased depiction of the whole decade or the people who lived in it. You could see them as some of the shadows that the sunny wingnut paintings of the 1950's always leave out.

The first of these is that staying at home when you got married was the expected, normative thing for women. It wasn't what most women really did, even in the 1950's, but it was what the culture demanded, and everybody and their great-uncle felt justified in criticizing a woman who didn't follow this path. A story told by a woman who worked in the social services during the 1950's gives a taste of what this was like:

She was a widow with children, and she applied for a job in which she would have been expected to be in charge of a large staff. In the interview she was asked how she could manage this and her children at the same time. Her answer was that the job demanded the ability organize and manage a large staff and that if she couldn't manage her own household she would not apply for the job in the first place. She did not get the job, and felt sure that it was because she was a single mother with children. In her world mothers were expected to be at home, even single mothers.

Second, the women's magazines of the era preached a continuous sermon of female contentment in homemaking, beauty products and the care and feeding of husbands. A woman who wanted something more or something different was a failure, a bitter woman suffering from penis envy, a woman in denial of her full womanhood. This was the era when Freud's pseudosciene made the biggest inroads on American thinking, and the educated cocktail party guests would earnestly analyze such women. For many women paid work was as financially essential as it was today, of course. But the myths of the era were very much about the domestic goddess roles of women.

Third, homemaking was expected to be a life-long commitment. Women who left the labor market when they got married or had children were assumed to be gone for good, though this wasn't statistically true, either. This is very different from the current idea of taking a few years off when the children were small. The women of Friedan's era were expected to have a career as housewives, even if they had law degrees in their apron pockets.

Fourth, and simultaneously with all this, the popular psychological literature came out with several anti-mother attacks, the most famous of them being Momism, which accused American mothers who did all the expected things, had many children, stayed at home faithfully and focused on their families, of overattachment to their children. This overattachment destroyed the masculinity of the sons... The double-edged Zeitgeist may sound familiar to the mothers among us: the way in which mothers can never do the right thing, it seems.

Fifth, and perhaps mostly importantly, homemaking was not incredibly valued before the horrible hairy feminists came along with the supposed smearing of women who choose to stay at home. It was valued, yes, but never as highly as the job of breadwinning. Make no mistake about this. There was an enormous difference between the valuing of motherhood in the American myths and the valuing of the actual women who did the job.

The cartoons of the era show some of the ambivalence America felt about housewives. Often cartoons joked about how the housewife emptied her hard-earning husband's wallet to go out shopping, or they joked about the husband who comes home unexpectedly and finds her wife leading the good life with her friends. On the other hand, there were cartoons depicting a housewife's typical day to her husband in the office or the factory: pictures of stews boiling over, children screaming and tipping cereal on the kitchen floor, a harassed housewife talking on the phone while a cat is clawing her nylon-covered shins. These cartoons are echoes of the debate that must have been going on between the sexes.

Add to this the fact that a housewife was almost totally dependent on her husband's earnings. If he walked out on her she was in deep shit. It used to be the case all over the world that married women couldn't enter into various kinds of contracts without their husbands' permission, though the reverse was not equally true. Even in the 1960's married women in Britain couldn't buy anything on credit without their husbands' permission, and in Greece married women couldn't open a bank account on their own. All this reflects the convention that the family money belonged to its earner, and that he was the one to rule over it. Today's Promise Keepers pine after these times.

The 1950's were the decade when the soldiers who returned from the Second World War were given their rewards: work, housing and families. Women had not gone to war and many probably accepted and welcomed the idea of a purely domestic role after the deprivations of the previous decade. But over time the stew of the ingredients that my recipe here has given, combined with the fanatical cold war policies of McCarthyism, the civil rights movement and the fear of nuclear devastation gave birth to the protesters of the 1960's. This is an interesting thought, isn't it? That the times the wingnuts want returned to us might have been the cause for the times the wingnuts hate most of all!

And how is any of this relevant for the present debate about women's proper roles? To me the answer is to ask whether we could reintroduce widespread domesticity of women without reintroducing the power structures that go with it, the male dominance in families and the financial dependency of women. Also, I'm pretty sure that the blaming of mothers will continue unabated by the small misogynistic wing of the anti-feminists. This blaming will not stop if women do what the writings of this group demand. It will just move on to some other reprehensible aspect of American mothers.
A PS: This is so apt given my last paragraph above that I'm quoting it even though I have not yet been able to locate the original link, though I suspect that it is to something Jonah Goldberg wrote. Even if it is not true, it captures the flavor of the mother-bashing that goes on, whatever mothers do:

Also, DC's residents are in their classic panic mode because we "might" get "some" snow tomorrow. So, needless to say, middle aged soccer moms are killing each other at the Safeway over the last bottles of raspberry-flavored fizzy water.