The Feminine Mystique
I am a feminist. I don’t think that’s a groundbreaking title to claim, although if you listen to some of my more famous peers (Katy Perry, I’m looking at you), it’s a dirty word. But whether you claim the title loudly and proudly, or claim everything the title represents but annoyingly shun the term itself, it’s good to understand its roots.
Enter The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women. Dense but accessible, the book focuses on the malaise that struck (straight, affluent, white – we’ll get to that in a minute) women in the 50s and 60s. Ms. Friedan put a name to “the problem that has no name,” exploring why women who seemingly have it all – or at least everything society thinks they should want to have – are unfulfilled, depressed, and even suicidal. She backs up her discussion with facts, referencing studies ranging from Kinsey’s research to polls from Mademoiselle magazine. She pretty neatly takes down the ridiculousness of Freudian theory as applied to women in the United States, and points to evidence that supports the idea that women who access higher education (whether before marriage or during) and pursue careers find themselves happier (and with better sex lives, natch) than their counterparts.
Much of the book is filled with important information and suggestions for how to achieve equality. While it took me awhile to get into it, I found that by breaking it down into chapters I was able to really process what I was reading. It was frustrating to read lines that could have been written today, describing how people view the ‘role of women’ in the home, that the most important thing that women can do is bear and raise children. As a childfree woman myself, I’m also well aware of the weird dichotomy that exists in the United States today: this worship of the idea of motherhood, but the disdain for mothers (e.g. no mandated paid maternity leave, shock at seeing a nipple in public to feed an infant, the judgment women cast upon each other over life choices).
BUT. And this is a big but, and one that I only discovered by reading the book – Ms. Friedan was apparently homophobic. It’s distressing to learn that she views that “Male homosexuals … are Peter Pans, forever childlike” who have a “fear of adult responsibility.” Say what now? While one can raise all the arguments they want about a book being ‘of its time’ (published in 1966), the fact remains that even in her later years of activism Ms. Friedan was at times guilty of expressing disdain for gay men and lesbians.
The other GIANT issue with this book is that, while focusing on what I would argue was (and to a degree still is) a real issue for women, she presented her arguments as though they applied to all women. I don’t think every book needs to examine all sides of every issue, but she certainly spent no time on the intersectionality of gender with race and class, and she also spent no time (at least that I saw, and I read it pretty closely) focused on why this is the group that needs the attention.
Still, I’d say this is a book to read for everyone who wants to understand better the history of feminism and be reminded not so much of ‘how far we’ve come’ but really of how far we haven’t come.