Cannonball Read #4 – The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. The book that gave a name to the problem with no name.

If you are a feminist or you agree with some of the principles of feminism (that women and men deserve equal opportunities and treatment) and you haven’t read this book you should. You should get ready to get mad. If you think we don’t need feminism anymore, or that we didn’t need it in the first place, you should read this book.

This book was written in 1963 and the vast majority of what Friedan writes about is still applicable to the way women are characterized and treated in Western society today. I started reading it out of curiosity.  With every chapter my rage and indignation grew.  I realized that we are not free of the Mystique, it’s alive and well. It has adapted and is working to oppress more people than ever.

In The Feminine Mystique we can see the roots of helicopter parenting, the self effacing focus on children, the quest to be the “perfect parent.” The complete focus on family is encouraged as the solution to the “problem that has no name.” If you were unsatisfied with your place as a home maker it was because you were not fully committed.  Instead of letting up and taking it easy, forgiving yourself and allowing yourself to be imperfect, buckling down was the solution. Today instead of this applying to women as home makers it applies to all women. Because we can “have it all” we are supposed to want it all. Instead of settling for contentment we are supposed to be continually striving to be better. Now, as then, there will always be someone implying that we could be doing everything just a little bit better. Out laundry and our floors could be cleaner, our kids could be better raised, our relationship with our spouses could be better. We are defined as consumers. A content consumer is a bad consumer. Enough is the enemy.

The “problem that has no name” is the idea that happiness is defined by a finite set of conditions. Once these are achieved one should be happy but there has been a bait and switch. The conditions of happiness are continually being reset. After a lifetime of striving, once we stop striving we feel emptiness.  Serial entrepreneurs who move on once the business is successful have it right. It’s not the stable successful business that makes them happy, it’s the striving for it. There is a down side to this striving life: the inability to relish what our lives do offer. The feeling that if you aren’t trying something new you are failing.

Friedan writes about a “nameless aching dissatisfaction.” I feel guilt that I am not as good a home maker as my mother, I am not as self sufficient. My house isn’t perfectly clean. My garden isn’t picture perfect. I don’t cook dinner every night.  I heap abuse on myself because I have been trained to seek out and identify my imperfections rather than acknowledge all that I actually do.

This is why I hate Dr. Laura and the cult of “I am my child’s parent.” The regression to defining a person, any person, by their relation to another person, is reductive and demeaning. I don’t want to be defined as “So and so’s mom.” It’s a more politically correct way of saying “So and so’s daughter/wife.” Now instead of belonging to your father and then your husband,  you belong to your kids. You are still defined and controlled by your capacity for breeding. The fetal rights movement capitalizes on this, removing the rights of women to control their health in the name of fetuses that may or may not exist and babies that may never be born.

Now, as in 1963, womens magazines help to perpetuate the Mystique, to transform and extend it, to keep people in thrall. In a move towards gender equality there are now magazines for men and women that are immensely shallow. Cosmo, Marie Claire, Maxim,  they are still so much mindlessness. Distracting people from weighty issues, from thoughtfulness, with ads and copy that are often indistinguishable. It’s still all about an image, what you wear, or slather on your skin, which 5 yoga poses will keep you thin. And so much of the content is about the opposite gender (because of course gender is a binary system!), pleasing them in bed, how to get one in the first place. None of them encourage the exploration of other people as unique individuals.  They are about the rules of engaging with a stereotype.

My mother was a feminist. She was not a June bride, married at 18, right out of high school. She didn’t get her MRS in college. She nursed a friend through the after-effects of an illegal abortion in the 1960’s. She resisted professors who told her that woman shouldn’t write research papers on medieval weapons technology but rather on knitting. When she worked at Pan Am she was denied promotion due to her gender. In response she booked a round the world trip for two at her employee rate and quit. In 1968 she and my grandmother traveled the world together for nine months with no escort, no man to keep them safe.

She did all of this in the face of the Mystique. I’ve been a self identified feminist since my teens mostly because of my mother.  The Feminine Mystique illustrates everything my mother had to resist and overcome in order to live her own life. I can chart the course of my education, career and relationships because she and others like her fought the Mystique.

I am horrified and incensed by how much of the Mystique remains. I am galvanized because the gains of the first wave were lost. Without a fight we could backslide again. To say it can’t happen is to deny the lesson of history. The Feminine Mystique is a story of rights taken for granted and lost.

Until a girl can read this book and see no part of her or her mother’s life in it, it will remain a relevant and vital reminder of how far we can fall if we stop fighting.


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