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12 May 2014updated 06 Sep 2021 3:03pm

Glosswitch on Betty Friedan: The ennui of the Middle-Class Mummy

While it might do so through the filter of middle-class angst, The Feminine Mystique provides a blistering critique of the ways in which female subordination and lack of choice are marketed to women as their very opposite.

By Glosswitch

This piece is part of the New Statesman’s “Rereading the Second Wave” series. Read the other essays here.

Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name” is, on the face of it, sickeningly trivial: the self-indulgent ennui of the middle-class mummy:

Each suburban wife 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?’

Like many, I struggle to read this without rolling my eyes. The opening lines of The Feminine Mystique play straight into the hands of all those who would characterise second-wave feminism as an exclusive club for the unfulfilled. Together with Friedan’s rampant homophobia and her comparisons of the housewife’s plight to that of concentration camp victims, it creates the impression of a book you’d want to read quickly, with your eyes half-closed, skimming over all those elements of “old feminism” that you’d rather not see. Nonetheless, there is a reason why this book, flawed as it is, has stood the test of time.

Published in 1962, The Feminine Mystique is often credited with launching feminism’s second wave, although such a claim is problematic. The notion of waves privileges the activism of certain groups and ignores the work of others. It defines feminism in chronological terms, suggesting a form of progression where there may be issues which can never be considered “done”. The wave approach encourages us to take a messy, complex collection of ideas, file it away and act as though we’ve moved on. I don’t think we have. On the contrary, we’ve barely begun and this book, now over 50 years old, provides an excellent illustration of why.

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While it might do so through the filter of middle-class angst, The Feminine Mystique provides a blistering critique of the ways in which female subordination and lack of choice are marketed to women as their very opposite. That alone makes it relevant today. I defy any woman to read Friedan’s work and not recognise at least some of the trends she pinpoints – not just in relation to housework and childcare, but to fashion, beauty, sexual exploitation, interpersonal relationships and paid work. Friedan’s focus might be the myth of the “happy housewife” but her arguments are entirely in line with today’s insistence that women can be the domestic goddess, the lean-in high achiever, the empowered sex object and the stay-at-home earth mother, all without benefiting from any form of social, economic or political change.

Friedan’s research combines interviews with housewives with an analysis of the worlds of advertising and women’s magazines. Although written before women had the same legal rights to property, equal pay and bodily autonomy, the focus is very much on the world of the mind, and in this way it engages with questions that feminists are still coming to terms with today: how do you challenge those elements of inequality which are not literally inscribed into law? How do you take on the marketing of ideas without being told that you are the illiberal one? How, in short, can you change how women are told to see themselves when choice is the ultimate good and making any form of judgment the ultimate sin?

Reading Friedan’s description of a 1960 issue of McCall’s I can’t help thinking of the current crop of women’s magazines and wondering just what, if anything, has improved:

The image of the woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in the world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home. […] It is crammed full of food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, and the physical bodies of young women, but where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?

What is the difference between this and today’s issues of Heat, Closer or Grazia? The only one I can see is that today’s magazines will include more images of women who are famous for the trappings of fame alone – the surface without even a passing interest in the core – and that the consumerism will be even more aggressive. Of course, that’s not what we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves that this time it is different because young women are more critical and knowing; they decide for themselves. The trouble is, that’s what people were saying in the 1960s.”Occupation: housewife” was being bigged up in the same way that “Occupation: lap dancer” or “Occupation: mother” are today. But are these choices really as free as they seem?

In the chapter entitled “The Sexual Sell”, Friedan talks to a marketing executive about the ways in which “American housewives can be give the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realisation, even the sexual joy they lack – by the buying of things”. The idea is not that housewives are stupid or lacking in critical awareness. They are trapped by the models of womanhood they have grown up with – and is it really so shameful for a woman to admit that this is where she finds herself? There is, I think, an ongoing taboo surrounding the idea of “failing”. Today’s young women are forced to engage with multiple mystiques. It’s a battle on several fronts and if everything is empowering, how can you find the words to articulate how disempowered you feel? Any criticism of the restrictive context in which choices are made is cast as an attack on other women, those who have made the choices you wish to resist. Hence a million inter-feminist phoney wars over fashion, motherhood and objectification, all of them distracting women from demanding real change in terms of how women’s work is rewarded and how their bodies are employed.

Defining the problem is one thing; coming up with a solution is harder. I don’t think Friedan has the definitive one; her vision is too narrow, heteronormative and insular. Her belief that education is “the key to the trap” and insistence that girls develop “resources of self” seems to foreshadow a self-help culture that would ultimately leave women to fend for themselves. Friedan is brilliant at capturing the way in which “womanhood” is sucked of all nuance then sold back to real, flesh-and-blood women, but not so good at addressing practical concerns such as time and money. She often seems to wish them away. Your kids will be fine in nursery. Housework doesn’t take much time anyhow. Of course you’ll have a husband. Of course you’re straight and middle-class. Of course money’s no object. It’s not always so easy. We need to change not just hearts and minds but working structures, systems of reward and our treatment of others on the basis of race, sexuality and class. What Friedan offers is a meaningful starting point. She offers us the right to critique but not the answers. We still need to find them for ourselves.  

It’s interesting to note the degree to which Friedan could have predicted the fate of her work in the public consciousness; she’d seen something similar happen to feminists before her (and we’d do well to consider whether the same could happen to us). In the book’s fourth chapter, “The Passionate Journey”, Friedan outlines the ways in which first-wave feminists came to be mischaracterised as “neurotic victims of penis envy who wanted to be men”:

In battling for women’s freedom to participate in the major work and decisions of society as the equals of men, they denied their very nature as women, which fulfils itself only through sexual passivity, acceptance of male domination, and nurturing motherhood.

Part of what Friedan is attempting to do is pay her dues to the discredited feminists who went before her.  Right now, in 2014, I think we’re faced with exactly the same challenges and are owing exactly the same debts, only this time to women such as Friedan herself. As long as our neoliberal obsession with choice takes the line that “sexual passivity, acceptance of male domination, and nurturing motherhood” are worthy ideals as long as they are freely chosen (and that no one is permitted to question the context and nature of “free” choice), then we will remain incapable of appreciating Friedan’s message.

Indeed, I fear that if Friedan were alive and writing today, she would be vilified in the same way she saw earlier feminists being vilified – only this time the vilification would be led by other feminists rather than anti-feminist men. She’d be told she was denying women agency and self-determination. She’d be told she had no right to judge other women’s lives and that “Occupation: Housewife” was, to many, a source of pride. She’d be fed the same lines that the happy housewives of the 1960s were fed, only they’d come from not just from marketing moguls, but from “liberated” women who insisted women were now empowered by everything women did.

But progress towards equality is not so easily achieved. We do not have free choice just because we say we do. Women’s decisions are not made in a vacuum; the costs and benefits remain influenced by gender prejudice, stereotype threat, economic inequality and fears for personal safety. Friedan made mistakes, huge ones, but she also struck a massive blow for the myth of women’s freedom under capitalism. If we’re not doing the same, maybe it’s not because we’ve become more inclusive and understanding. Maybe it’s because, unlike Friedan, we lack the nerve. We shy away from judgment because we simply can’t bear to risk making mistakes. Yet although when Friedan is wrong, she is very wrong, when she gets it right — and a lot of the time she does – she is so right that it hurts.

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