5 Times Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” Made Me Cry in Public

The Feminine Mystique, combined with all of the articles decrying and praising it and all of the myriad comments on said articles, opened my eyes to the cascade of stuff I don’t know about feminism.
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Publish date:
September 3, 2015
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feminism, depression, housewives, Second Wave Feminism

I never took a women’s studies course in college.

Looking back, I have no idea why I didn’t. I had the space in my schedule, several classes were offered, a lot of my friends were taking them; why didn’t I take advantage of that? Why did I join the crew team? Why did I date a Republican? There are a lot of unanswered questions about my college experience.

This hole in my education means that I have a fuzzy, filtered-through-the-Internet understanding of a lot of the main figures and works of historical feminism. I just can’t keep calling myself a feminist, which I consider myself to be since I think women should get to have jobs and vote and go to school, without accessing the Big Books of the movement.

It took me until the ripe age of 25 to actually think, “Hmm, my boyfriend has a copy of The Feminine Mystique; I vaguely remember that being important. Maybe I should borrow it.”

I knew absolutely nothing about The Feminine Mystique when I picked it up except that it was a feminist book written in the 50s (and I was wrong about that; it was written in the 60s). I didn’t even Google it ahead of time, but if I had I would have learned that it’s one of the most influential and impassioned works of the 20th century, credited with launching the women’s liberation movement and second-wave feminism. The book focuses on “the problem that has no name;” a restless, depressive feeling that Betty Friedan observed in educated housewives.

If I had bothered to do any research, I also would have seen it raked over the coals as racist, classist, homophobic, and straight up untrue.

All of that is there. It doesn’t do enough, no two ways about it. There’s some pretty ridiculous shit along the lines of “the servant problem,” the discussion of women of color is nonexistent, and she makes some hair-raisingly inappropriate comparisons to concentration camps and segregation. But even a text this steeped in complications still has educational value, even if only as a historical document.

Friedan is groping in the dark of midcentury America, trying to find out (using statistics, interviews, scientific studies, and surveys) why all of her friends are sad. The results are myopic, but for what they are, they are chilling, and occasionally made me swell with tearful rage on the subway. E.g.:

1. The below is an excerpt from a piece of fiction published in the Ladies’ Home Journal circa 1949. Sarah, the main character, is taking secret flying lessons.

“ ‘[An elderly dinner guest] asks if she is in love. “She found it difficult to answer. In love with the good-natured, the beautiful Henry [the flying teacher]? In love with the flashing water and the lift of wings at the instant of freedom, and the vision of the smiling, limitless world? ‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘I think I am.’ ...In bed that night she smiles sleepily, remembering how Henry had said, “You’re my girl.” Henry’s girl! She smiled. No, she was not Henry’s girl. She was Sarah. And that was sufficient. And with such a late start it would be some time before she got to know herself. Half in a dream now, she wondered if at the end of that time she would need someone else and who it would be.”

Now, I haven’t read a magazine intended especially for ladies since you could get fold-out posters of Hanson in them, but friends inform me that Cosmo and etc. still do publish fiction.

I have a hard time imagining that the heroines of those stories reject their handsome flying instructors to work on self-actualization.

Often, women’s choices and personalities in fiction are represented by the men they pick; you picked the wild one? You take risks! You picked the charming floppy-haired hometown sweetheart? You’re softening and starting to enjoy the simple things in life! It’s like a BuzzFeed quiz about your Hogwarts house, but if Gryffindor were replaced with Henry the Flying Teacher.

This section kind of made me panic that I’m not living my life to the fullest because the world has taught me to replace goals with men. And then I really started to get upset when I thought about how many of us must do that.

2. At one point in the book, Friedan talks about her search for The Happy Housewife; an educated woman, happy to leave her career goals behind, experiencing true happiness with life exclusively in the home. She found only one who fit the bill (i.e., didn’t actually turn out to work outside the home or openly show signs of depression and malaise) in a community of thirty, and this is an excerpt of their conversation:

“...her happiness was complete, she said, spending her days with her children. Perhaps there was a happy housewife.

But just before I left, I said, as an afterthought, that I guessed she was joking...that she envied her neighbor, who was a professional designer as well as the mother of three children. “No, I wasn’t joking,” she said; and this serene housewife, kneading the dough for the bread she always made herself, started to cry. “I envy her terribly,” she said. “She knows what she wants to do. I don’t know. I never have. When I’m pregnant and the babies are little, I’m somebody, finally, a mother. But then, they get older. I can’t just keep on having babies.” (227)

I’m somebody. Her whole existence was burned down into one sharp, temporary point. I put the book down and felt sick for her, this nameless woman from the past who lovingly crafted homemade bread simply because she didn’t know what else to do.

3. There’s an entire chilling section in The Feminine Mystique on women in midcentury higher ed. Here’s a quote from an unnamed college-level educator in 1959 speaking with contempt about a school that dropped a compulsory marriage course:

“There’s nothing wrong with early marriage, with the proper preparation. I guess they can’t get over the old notion that women should be educated to develop their minds. They deny it, but one can’t help suspecting that they still believe in careers for women.”

Okay, so this was a long time ago. But if it was ever possible for someone to say something as ludicrous, as insulting, as outright enraging as this, it’s never impossible for that pendulum to swing back again. (This one was less technically crying and more of an outraged “ugh.”)

4.

“For the suburban and city housewife, the fact remains that more and more of the jobs that used to be performed in the home have been taken away: canning, baking bread, weaving cloth...there is a real basis, then, for the complaint that many housewives have: ‘I feel so empty somehow, useless, as if I don’t exist.’...This very sense of emptiness...often drives the housewife to even more effort, more frantic housework to keep the future out of sight.”

To keep the future out of sight. Say what you will about Betty, she can turn a phrase.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I decided to take the summer off. I didn’t plan for a job or an internship, and I just headed home to North Carolina to chill out and relax, reflecting on the past year and planning the year to come.

It was decidedly unpeaceful. My parents were T minus two years from separating, my delinquent brother* kept mouthing off to cops, and the combined credit card debt of the household was staggering. In response, I sublimated all of my fear and frustration into idolizing, mimicking, and emulating a protective 1950s housewife.

I sewed my own period dresses, dried clothes on a line outside despite a completely functional dryer, obsessively cleaned the house over and over, and cooked dinner every day. This was my effort to “keep the future out of sight,” a future which included three more years of school at a conservative college where I was dramatically unhappy, and my family falling apart like a rotting sunken ship.

It may be that this one doesn’t make you feel anything; hell, maybe none of this makes you feel anything. But this shit stung me for sure, and it stung me on a park bench where everyone could see.

5. In the final chapter, Friedan offers this excerpt from a “Suggested Outline for Married Couple’s Discussions” from the Family Life Bureau of the Archdiocese of New York:

“The panel couples should point out that the bride who is happy at a 9-to-5 o’clock job has this to think about:

a. She may be subtly undermining her husband’s sense of vocation as the bread-winner and head of the house. The competitive business world can inculcate in the working bride attitudes and habits which may make it difficult for her to adjust to her husband’s leadership…

b. At the end of a working day, she presents her husband with a tired mind and body at a time when he looks forward to the cheerful encouragement and fresh enthusiasm of his spouse…

c. For some brides, the tension of doubling as business woman and part-time housewife may be one of several factors contributing to sterility…”

a. Obviously all women must stop working immediately, because men don’t feel like the sole breadwinners and that hurts their tiny feelings. (Don’t men find this argument as insulting as women find it, honestly?)

b. Men are looking for an attitude as perky as your boobs are when they come home from a long day getting saline lung in the salt mines. Nothing is as important as the smile on your face and a rare steak presented without comment.

c. Watch out: stop working or you will BECOME STERILE.

A charming series of arguments.

If nothing else, The Feminine Mystique, combined with all of the articles decrying and praising it and all of the myriad comments on said articles, opened my eyes to the cascade of stuff I don’t know about feminism. There’s so much to learn, always, and some of it won’t be pleasant or comfortable to think about.

Obviously, there’s very little defense for a book that allegedly writes from a global female perspective but focuses almost entirely on affluent white American women. The overwhelming response to TFM is “Oh, you’re bored? Boo-hoo, we’re dying.”

But what Friedan saw was a huge number of women who were supposed to be happy, but weren’t. If boredom is the apex of the female experience—if the best we could ever hope for, if we get the freedom and privilege to live our fullest lives, is to be glorified housepets—that’s not nothing.

If even women who seem to have all of the gifts that society expects them to want are listless, undeveloped, afraid, depressed; that’s not nothing. That’s clearly a society that, even performing at its most seamless, could never fully support women.

Oh, man. Maybe this is why I never took a women’s studies class, and spent my elective credits doing History of the Baguette and 19th Century Flemish Landscape Painters & Their Mistresses. But it’s time to put aside childish things and pick up Ain’t I A Woman, or Sexual Politics, or even Our Bodies, Ourselves, and stop relying on tumblr to tell me how I should feel about my vagina this season.

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* He’s doing fine now! Love you, Guthrie! Who am I kidding, he’s not reading this.