Chapter Three: The Crisis in Woman’s Identity
Or, I Know You Are But Who Am I?
Thesis alert! We finally get it on page 77, at which point a journalism professor would already have given Friedan an F for burying her lede:
“It is my thesis that the core of the problem for women today is not sexual but a problem of identity—a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique. It is my thesis that as the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.”
Translation: Victorian society didn’t want women to enjoy their lady parts; modern society didn’t want women to enjoy their brains. Because brains and vajayjays are dangerous, people! Especially when they are overtaxed.
Friedan starts the chapter by bemoaning the fact that young women couldn’t picture their lives beyond the age of 21, to which I say, no doy. Such is the beauty of youth. College graduation is a cliff off which even the most emancipated young woman may fall blindly. The difference, according to TFM, was that women, unlike men, weren’t afforded the privilege of actually facing the agonizing quarterlife crisis. Most of them punted the issue of personal identity by getting married and quickly squeezing out a few babies, thereby answering that persnickety question, “Who am I,” with the domestic definition “wife and mother.” Crisis averted. Until that whole mental breakdown and bursting boils thing once the kids go off to school and your husband finds you cold and flabby.
So. Here’s the astounding lesson I take from this: In 2013, we are all 1950s women. Because what are we today (hipsters, I’m looking at you), but youth who don’t want to face growing up. Only we don’t hide behind marriage and kids; we hide behind irony. Or by going on a reality show.
Heavy stuff, y’all.
Thought not as heavy as when Friedan drops the C bomb. Not the one you’re thinking. This one: Castration. Ack! Come back! She’s only speaking figuratively! But Friedan argues this failure to forge a complete identity leaves a woman frustrated, neurotic, and “castrative to her husband and sons.” Any teenage boy who’s ever had his mom bring his forgotten lunchbox to school knows what I’m talking about.
Friedan blames this instinct of young women to turn and run from the cliff of self-discovery (preferably, into the arms of a man) on the persistence of those public models of womanhood that the evil lady mags and Mad Men created (see Chapter Two). But young women were turning to those public images because they lacked a private image, i.e., they were scared to death of becoming their mothers, who were alienated, empty, clingy shrews who resented their families for not filling their own existential voids.
Alright! Moving on. One thing I’m not sure I buy lock, stock and barrel in this chapter: the idea that teenage girls’ desire for popularity is due to a lack of positive models in their moms. Yes, maybe young women were flocking to the public image of the Happy Housewife because they didn’t have a personal image of a Fulfilled Woman, but teen girls (even ones with strong, independent mothers) want to be popular because they are teen girls and there is safety in the pack. Let’s not read too much into this, Betty.
The other thing, and I keep coming back to this: Can we not leave room in the definition of Complete, Fulfilled, Self-realized Woman for those women who do face the dilemma of identity but still choose to place mother and wife at the core of that hard-won sense of self? I’m starting to back up from this work a little and see the pendulum swinging. In staking out space for women’s mature identity, Friedan had to go to extremes to be heard, extremes that sometimes unfortunately, for lack of a better pun, threw out the baby with the bathwater. So far, she has held independence and career on a pedestal while dismissing partnership and parenthood. I’m waiting to see if she might qualify herself.
Next up: The Passionate Journey (not to be confused with Passion’s Journey).