Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Feminine Mystique

The book by Betty Friedan, important in American feminism, turns fifty.  Menopausal, it is!

I wasn't going to write about the book but decided to do so because of the conversations elsewhere, here and here, and in particular here.

I read The Feminine Mystique a long time ago, right around the same time I read all the books about feminism I could get hold of, including The Second Sex, The Female Eunuch, The Sceptical Feminist, Words and Women,  Women: The Longest Revolution, On Women & Revolution,  Sexual Politics etcetera etcetera. 

Some of those are still worth reading, some have perhaps passed into the annals of history.  Later I supplemented those books with works such as In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Feminist Theory:  From Margin to Center, The Backlash, The Beauty Myth and so on and so on.

Those titles are picked because I can see them on my shelves from the desk.  Others are behind my back and  my older books about women are in a different room but those certainly include The Book of the City of Ladies, A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The Subjection of Women as well as my collection of misogynist writings through history. 

Why list all those books?  To point out that no one book should be treated as the midwife of feminism and neither should any one book be held to such impossibly high standards. 

But this is what I see done, to some extent, with The Feminine Mystique.  It is criticized for what it omitted, for the terms it used, for its homophobia and for the fact that it covers only the lives of highly educated, white, middle- and upper-class American housewives.   

All of these are valid criticisms, true, and the only reason I worry about them is this:  I've come to believe that feminist writings are held to higher standards than almost any other types of writings.  They are so thoroughly chopped and ground and analyzed that at the end of it I feel as if all that's left is a soggy pile of shredded paper, and I'm growing weary of that, weary of the way the criticisms from anti-feminists and from feminists interact to erase whatever pertinent messages a book might contain.

Perhaps the reason for that weariness is that the yardstick in this game seems the same perfection that is used for motherhood in the US.   But if only a perfect book is good enough, how many of us dare to try?

If I remember correctly, none of the second wave classics exactly matched my own situation or the reasons I turned to feminism.  The Feminine Mystique, for example, felt alien to me in that I knew very few housewives and none with higher education, and most of it applied to a foreign culture then.  The Second Sex, likewise, applied to a very different world than mine.  But I learned things from all of those books and many others.  Over time what I learned was used in building my own theories, then later books made me rebuild some parts of the structure, and I expect to go on redesigning this domicile in the future, too.  That's what is delicious about learning and about books.

What I learned from The Feminine Mystique was the Power of Naming.  That was the take-home message for me, not the rest of the book, even though Friedan's exposition of the way the 1950s media was complicit in the creation of the mystique is very well done and demonstrates sound research.

Indeed, it is the Naming which matters in many of the books I listed.  It's almost a diagnosis:  You begin with inchoate aches, a feeling that something is wrong.  You take your temperature, you wonder about what you have eaten, whether you might have the flu or a stomach bug.  You visit your doctor and get a diagnosis.  And once you have the diagnosis, you can attend to the illness.

It's not possible before the ailment is Named.  Friedan Named one part of the dilemmas American women faced, and others could then address the problem.  Naming other parts of the dilemmas was left for later authors.  But slowly, over time, we are developing a clearer picture of the whole spectrum of these dilemmas.  This allows us to address them.  In hopeful theory, at least.

And of course much of what Friedan wrote fifty years ago is now outdated.  Isn't that wonderful?!
We no longer get advertisements where Betty next door has whiter laundry than Ann in this house,  and Ann is full of jealousy until she goes out and buys some stupid detergent, and we no longer get advertisements where Joe spanks Carol after coming home because Carol had brewed bad coffee.  Those were not unheard-of things before Friedan's book.

I'd like to return to the Power of Naming and apply it to this review of Friedan's book.  The review itself is well done and interesting.  It ends like this:

Feminism opened a million new doors, but our cultural anxiety about and animosity toward women swept right in to create new wormholes of dread just beyond them. We have gained so much, and yet we struggle mightily with all the guilt and pressure that have come with every one of those victories. Five full decades after Friedan sent out the rallying cry for us to be seen as more than just wives and mothers, our president refers to “our wives, mothers and daughters” when addressing the nation as if, when he speaks to the American people, he’s not speaking to wives, mothers and daughters. It’s been 50 years of hard-won battles and gains for women, 50 years of fighting to write for ourselves our place in American culture. So how much has changed since Friedan sent out a flare called “The Feminine Mystique”? Everything. And nothing. And our definition of what it means to be a woman didn’t get easier — it just got impossibly broader.
Cultural anxiety about the proper role of women:  Yes.  Animosity towards women:  Oh my, yes and yes and yes!  Guilt and pressure:  Sure.

But see how that paragraph is screaming for Naming.  There it is, that inchoate ache, that high temperature, that feverish brow, and the biggest hint is in the very last words:  Our definition of what it means to be a woman just got impossibly broader.

I'm not clever enough to Name this problem but it certainly has much to do with the fact that the new definitions of womanhood have not faded away the old definitions of womanhood.  Both are in use, and a woman will fail if she tries to satisfy both definitions.  If she chooses to honor only one of those definitions, she will be criticized on the basis of the other definition by at least some people among her acquaintances.  So the game is rigged on the level of values.

On a more realistic level, the traditionally female tasks in this world are still seen as traditionally female tasks, whereas many traditionally male tasks are now seen as non-gendered tasks.  That's the expansion the linked article might mean when it speaks about broadened definitions of what it means to be a woman. 

In practice this is about the second shift, the lack of changes in who does most of the household chores but it is also about the way the public and the private spheres are still kept apart.  Anyone who ventures into the latter full-time receives no help for a return trip.  Anyone who sticks to the former pays a high price in the loss of non-work related valuable aspects of life.  And anyone who tries to dance on the top of the fence separating the two is always at risk of falling off.

These may very well be the problems that only privileged women can think about.  But the second shift affects non-privileged women more, and the poorer the woman is the harder the fence-dancing becomes.  Child-care costs money, staying at home without a partner who earns enough is impossible.  The real solutions cannot be based on individual acts because we no longer live in large kinship groups where help is at least sometimes available.   But the societal action we need will not be forthcoming as long as the old and new definitions of what-it-means-to-be-a-woman are both valid currency.

That's the new mystique that has taken the place of Friedan's feminine mystique, I think.  And yes,  my homeboys, there is a corresponding Masculine Mystique but I leave writing about that to you guys.