The Feminist Mystique, by Betty Friedan

I’ve been reading Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist polemic, The Feminine Mystique. It’s been pretty interesting (and not just for historical reasons). For one thing, it’s interesting to note that the primary point that the book is trying to make is a very specific one. It is not trying to say–in general terms–that women are oppressed and don’t have opportunity. Instead, it’s narrowly focused on a subset of American–non-working middle-class and upper-class housewives–and what Friedan calls “the problem with no name,” which is the growing depression and emptiness that (she claims) these housewives are feeling.

Friedan’s solution is for these women (and she often says that she herself used to be one of them) to start finding some meaning in work outside of the house. But she identifies their primary obstacle as “The Feminine Mystique”–which is the notion that a woman can, and should, be fully satisfied by housework, child-rearing, and general wifery.

Now, when you review a book like the Feminine Mystique, you’re supposed to say, “Wow, I am sure glad that we don’t have these archaic problems anymore.” But in this case, that’s not true. The Feminine Mystique didn’t go away. It’s still around. It’s alive and well.

At times, Friedan frequently states outright that she does not believe that a life of pure housework can be satisfying for any woman, as in this quote:

For no matter how much the “home-and-family career” is rationalized to justify such appalling waste of able womanpower; no matter how ingeniously the manipulators coin new scientific sounding words, “lubrilator” and the like, to give the illusion that dumping the clothes in the washing machines is an act akin to deciphering the genetic code; no matter how much housework is expanded to fill the time available, it still presents little challenge to the adult mind.

That’s a pretty bold statement, and not one that I think many people would be inclined to make today. Nowadays, housewives are celebrated. Indeed, being a housewife has something of an exotic and upper-class tinge. I think that few people would state, publicly, that they’ve never met a fully-satisfied housewife; or that most household tasks require no more intelligence than that which is possessed by an eight year old; or that housewives tend to make their (relatively minor) tasks expand to fill all the available time because they’re afraid of facing the meaninglessness of their lives.

While most people would say it is just fine if a woman chooses to stay home with the kids, I am not sure that Friedan would agree. Friedan was not just writing about the patriarchy–she was also writing about the way that the patriarchy had infected the brains of her peers and made them commit themselves to lifestyles that could not make them happy.

 

Anyway, what’s startling to me about The Feminist Mystique (and most other 50s and 60s polemics that I’ve read) is the degree to which the issues raised have not been solved, but have, rather, been rendered moot by a general decline in the standard of living.

For instance, at the same time as Friedan was encouraging women to seek careers, there were plenty of men–like Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road or William Whyte in The Organization Man or Joseph Heller in Something Happened–who were pointing out that the middle-class workplace kind of sucked (just as Studs Terkel was doing for the blue collar workplace in Working). Did Friedan really want her women to enter into mind-numbing time-filling jobs where they had to sublimate their creative impulses just to get enough money to live?

No, of course not. The jobs she’s exhorting women to take are the ones in “the professions”. She wants them to become doctors and artists and writers and lawyers and scientists and professors. And it’s true, there are way more women doing those things now than back then.

But mostly, women don’t do those things. Women were forced into labor market by falling hourly wages. Nowadays, real household income is only a bit (15ish percent) higher than it was in 1976, but the total number of hours of spent doing paid work is much higher. Nowadays, the vast majority of women–even those with young children–are trading their labor for money. But most of them are doing so in jobs that are just as dull and stifling as the ones that Terkel and Heller and Yates decried.

Reading The Feminine Mystique, it’s hard not to wish that things had turned out differently. Why do all of our social revolutions have to be sucked up through this capitalist straw? If women want more fulfilling labor, why must their repressed energy be taken up and frittered away by the commercial world?

The world that Friedan describes–one in which a circa 40 hour workweek was enough to support two adults and 3+ children–seems like an incredibly wealthy one. I understand that political economy pressures made it difficult for non-working women to assert their right to their own time within their marriages, but it seems like there should’ve been a better compromise. Why couldn’t we have a world where both partners worked twenty hours, and instead spent the remaining time pursuing education or intellectual interests or political activity or their own business ventures. I am glad that we live in a different world now, but I am not happy that in arriving at this world, we also somehow managed to lose our grasp on the leisure and wealth that the old world managed to produce in abundance.

 

Another thing that strikes me about The Feminist Mystique (and similar polemics like The Organization Man) is their complete absence of anything that I would call real scientific evidence. Like…the way that Friedan found out about “the problem with no name” was by surveying the graduates of her college class, and then, later, by going out across the country and surveying housewives. But…I don’t get the impression that the survey was very scientific. And even if it was, there was definitely no differences-within-differences analysis. I mean, were women more dissatisfied than they had been twenty years ago? Were they more dissatisfied than their husbands? These are very simple and obvious questions, and they are ones that The Feminist Mystique only attempts to address anecdotally.

As such, it’s very easy to dismiss Friedan’s arguments. She has proved none of them. And that’s okay. But it does mean that The Feminist Mystique can only work through sympathetic force. You either feel the arguments to be true, or you do not. Since I am not a housewife, I have no idea whether they’re true or not. And now that we’re 50 years distant from the time of publication, it’s easy to wonder whether this book is actually saying anything accurate about the mental state of housewives at the time.

Of course, we do know that it captured the cultural moment and that a great many people felt it to be deeply true. And, for me, that’s enough to make it worth reading.