The feminist mystique at 50
WASHINGTON — Now is the time for all good women to pay homage to Betty Friedan, who 50 years ago wrote the game-changing manifesto “The Feminine Mystique.”
With that book, Friedan helped propel a revolution led by, of all people, unhappy housewives.
One feels silly even writing such a sentence, but revolutions have to start somewhere. Why not in the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly? Or wherever Friedan, who was actually writing magazine stories the whole time she was bored, went to shop.
Friedan did, indeed, identify and give shape to “the problem that has no name” — female angst born of privilege — but she also helped launch a flotilla of myths that have many women (and men) still scratching their heads.
As her critics have noted, Friedan didn’t tackle any of the legal obstacles to women’s equality. Nor did she pay attention to women of color or members of the working class. She mostly noted that women like her — well-to-do, well-educated and stifled by domestic bliss — wanted and deserved more. It simply wasn’t fair that men had fulfilling lives, intellectually and monetarily, while women were expected to find satisfaction in the latest invention aimed at whiter collars and cleaner toilet bowls.
Anyone familiar with “The Stepford Wives” can grasp this notion. Thus, thousands of women like Friedan, recognizing themselves in her lament, charged out of their houses and into the streets.
Doubtless I would have been a member of the stampede had I been of age, but as it happens, I was being raised by a widower and assumed that all men delighted in carpooling and cooking. How little I knew of the toils of sad, wealthy women.
Thus, the feminist movement left the station without me except to the extent, as readers sometimes remind me, that I benefited from the protests of my foremothers. Indeed, I am grateful for the suffragists who thought my vote should be equal to any man’s. And I am thankful that the workplace into which I entered recognized my value. But the world in which I grew up never suggested otherwise.
In all those years when Friedan and colleagues were demanding an equal rights amendment, I only heard words of encouragement from a lawyer/father who demanded much and often intoned: “An unnecessary law is always a bad law.” He never once suggested that a girl was in any way less capable than a boy in any arena (the combat exception was so obvious in a household of male warriors that no one bothered to debate it).
The focus of most conversation was on simple principles: Hard work leads to accomplishment leads to self-respect. I could not divine a gender element to these truths. I also saw plenty of working women, including my pediatrician, as well as those who, despite having been professionals before becoming mothers, had chosen to run busy households.
Nevertheless, I was marinating in a culture that was shifting and I was surely absorbing the zeitgeist. But members of my generation also were becoming unwitting hostages to myths that few were brave enough to challenge. My own skepticism came to full fruition the moment I became a mother.
Unlike Friedan, I wasn’t tethered to home but to a job. Rather than resenting the prospect of staying home with a baby, I was stricken by the realization that I couldn’t. The “strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning,” words Friedan used to describe thwarted ambition, was for me the sense of having abandoned my son.
Revolutions are like children — eager and hopeful in the beginning, then, like teenagers, suddenly riotous and unruly. They have their own ideas about things and pick up friends who are bad influences. Sometimes they need to be spanked. Fine, OK, a timeout.
Fifty years later, Friedan’s movement has reached full adulthood and, one hopes, is seeing a shrink. Among lessons gleaned from the couch is that maturation requires recognizing our mistakes and our own roles in unwelcome consequences. What worked for privileged, educated women hasn’t worked so well for those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
And while women have the same need as men to lead meaningful lives, the feminist mystique’s great failing was in advancing the notion that caring for children posed an obstacle to self-realization.
In a twist to delight The Fates, Friedan’s ultimate legacy may well be a stay-at-home dad, grateful for the latest appliance that liberates him to carpool and make organic treats.