Blogging The Feminine Mystique

Why am I doing this? Because I’m a lazy post-feminist who’s never read it.

You want the long answer?

I enjoy many of the benefits of the women’s movements that came before me. I went to an all-girls school, where I played sports and never had to hold back an answer because it was considered unfeminine to be smart. I’m not blind to the fact that, in some cases, lacking a Y chromosome actually increased my job opportunities (yay, quotas!). At 31, I live with my boyfriend, have no kids, and am self-employed, and actually feel these things empower rather than doom me. At the same time, I feel the freedom to change them if and when (to a realistic degree) I want.

And yet.

I fall prey to body image issues. In high school I only-somewhat-ironically listened to rap music that sometimes violently objectified women. I still call women “girls.” I sometimes defer to men for no other reason than I assume they know more about something, like gutter cleaning, than I do. And I never took a women’s studies course in college.

Which brings me here, now, in 2013, to Betty Friedan’s 1963 fem lib classic.

With books like Lean In burning up the op/ed pages and the old work/home debate finding new traction, I figure it’s about time. Let me be clear that I am not an academic, nor a sociologist. These are my thoughts and do not represent those of Barnes & Noble. It’s just me and Betty here, me and Betty and fifty years of intervening history.

So join on me on this magical, mystiqual journey, won’t you?

Note: I’m reading the 50th anniversary edition of the book, with an introduction by Gail Collins, but I’ve decided the skip the intro and dive right in for the unadulterated experience. Here goes…

Chapter One: The Problem that Has No Name
Or the Blaming of the Shrew

Friedan starts off by painting a picture of the mid-century landscape for women, and I need a tranquilizer just reading about it. A former magazine writer, she interviewed a lot of real women, and here’s how they described their days: Carpool, cooking, dishes, despair, laundry, bed making, toilet training, existential aimlessness, PTA meetings, chrysanthemums, shame, no sleep, no private time and, worse, no idea what to do with private time when it did miraculously present itself (see: existential aimlessness).

Meanwhile, their lives were supposed to be easier than ever, because TECHNOLOGY, SEE! Washing machines and floor waxers and instant potatoes, oh my! But no woman wanted to be the first to admit that she would rather put her head in the oven than clean it one more time. It reminds me of middle school, when everyone denied they’d gotten their period for two years until one of us finally broke.

Also, babies were marrying babies. I am shocked to read that by the end the 1950s, there were 14 million girls engaged by the age of 17—and they didn’t even have their own MTV reality shows. More girls were dropping out or not attending college. I’ve heard of the MRS degree, but Friedan introduces me to a new one: the PhT (Putting Husband Through) degree.

All women were supposed to be happy with this circumscribed life, in which the greatest fulfillment and achievement was to be a wife and a mother. Some toed the line, “ate chalk” to make themselves thinner, refused chemo because of its “unfeminine” side effects, turned down competitive fellowships, bounced between 35 jobs in six months to find their Don Draper, and suffered legit mental breakdowns because they couldn’t breastfeed.

By the 1950s, young women actually had less freedom than their mothers at their age. The older women had experienced first-wave feminism and a greater degree of freedom inside and outside the home during the World Wars, only to watch that freedom slip away when the men returned. As Friedan says (paraphrasing), they were allowed to dream only to have to give up their dream, whereas the younger women never dreamed at all. Time for another tranquilizer.

Then came 1960, the year, as Friedan so vividly puts it, the boil burst. Yep, that big, pus-y boil (thanks, Friedan) was all over people’s faces and we were finally talking about this Problem-That-Must-Not-Be-Named and the obvious question, why are all these happy housewives not happy?

Magazines, newspapers, doctors, and psychiatrists of the day certainly thought they knew. Their theories ranged from the superficial to the infuriating. (If you were wondering when this was all going to boil down to the fact that we bleed from our uteri once a month, it’s on page 12.) Other culprits:

  • Education. (Friedan doesn’t buy that education is a cause of women’s unhappiness, but she does say it’s a clue. Certainly more to come on that topic.)
  • Too much independence.
  • Boredom.
  • No one’s happy.
  • Sex. (Again, Friedan says it’s not the reason but another clue. There are a few mentions of Freud in this chapter, and I get the feeling Friedan thought he was an A#1 a-hole. There is a later chapter entitled “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud.” I’m looking forward to it.)

A few thoughts as I read this first chapter:

1. TFM, read from my vantage point, is going to suffer the peril of every classic: It will seem trite, or obvious, simply because it paved the way for so many imitators—imitators with far-reaching tentacles. Reading the first chapter, I’m thinking, duh. Revolutionary Road. Little Children. Mad Men. Desperate Housewives. Suburban malaise has been so done.

2. The Mystique is not dead. Baking bread from scratch, sewing kids’ clothes, pickling, canning, rug-hooking. It’s every Pinterest page I’ve ever seen.

3. This is all very clearly a #FirstWorldProblem. This is an issue Friedan starts to address and dismiss, which I hope she picks up later. If modern American women actually had to worry about life and liberty, would we be so tortured by our pursuit of happiness? Is there time for mystique when you’re just trying to keep yourself alive and your family together?

4. TFM doesn’t totally let women off the hook. I always assumed this book was an exposé of society’s treatment of women, but now I’m beginning to wonder if its target is also women, or woman’s nature itself. Maybe a corrosive cocktail of all of the above? Friedan calls out women for holding mistaken ideas and false standards, thought not for creating them. By the end of the chapter, I don’t know what (or who) Friedan believes is responsible, but I know she has some ideas. And as we know, ideas and women are a dangerous combination. Stay tuned.