Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique"

Written as long ago as 1963, this book still speaks with a fresh, combative yet engaging voice. Friedan set out to understand the nagging sense of emptiness that American suburban housewives felt in the 1950s. Marshaling the data and arguments of psychology, sociology and history, she made the case that this existential nullity resulted from the attempt to live according to what she called the feminine mystique, the idea that a woman's sole purpose in life is to be a wife and a mother. In different chapters, Friedan analyzed and criticized the contributions of Freudian psychoanalysis, functional sociology (including Margaret Mead's later writings), sex-directed education, post-war uncertainties and rampant consumerism to the feminine mystique. The synthesis of research and polemic is quite compelling.

Equally persuasive is her demonstration of the deadly consequences of the feminine mystique. Taking the home as the boundaries of her world, the American housewife exhausted herself through unnecessary housework, bought into the promises of the latest gadgets, dominated her husband and children as her life projects, sought extra-marital sex in order to feel alive, and suffered nervous breakdowns. Friedan showed the tragedy of forbidding women to pursue meaningful and creative work outside of the home, in the knowledge that she was contributing to the wider society. The tragedy affected not just women, but men, and children. Her call for women's full participation in the world beyond the home was taken up by women in the 1960s. The epilogue narrates with great energy the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the march down New York's Fifth Avenue on the fifteenth anniversary of the vote.

The book is not without its blind spots, of course. In an otherwise admiring introduction, Anna Quindlen points out that Friedan underestimated the desire of some men to retain the services of a de facto servant class. My own criticism lies in Friedan's lack of understanding of homosexuality. So rightly skeptical of the Freudian idea of women's "penis envy," she accepted too uncritically Freud's explanation of male homosexuality as solely a case of maternal dominance. I think she was right to castigate as infantile some of the manifestations of male homosexuality of this period--mindless sexual promiscuity, love-hate for the Mother--but she was wrong to imply that same-sex love is necessarily immature.

Despite the blemishes, this book is still relevant to thinking about the balance between work and family, love and independence. In "Metamorphosis: Two Generations Later," written in 1997 and included in this edition, Friedan saw the need to re-conceive the masculine mystique. Given women's increasing success in competing with men in the wider world, given the loss of lifetime employment on which men have traditionally based their self-image, how should men think of themselves, and women of men too, so that both men and women can grow to their fullest human possibilities?

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