The Feminine Mystique

Recommendation: Yes, duh

Where to read: Does it matter? Just read the bloody thing

Read with: A glass of this at your local wine bar, since we’re really leaning into middle-class feminism here

In brief: This was my antidote to a business lunch only two women attended because, despite significant progress, there are only 12 female CEOs in the ASX200, the gender pay gap is still a thing and women do more housework and childcare than their male partners, even when they are the primary earner. And that’s just talking about careers… It made me feel marginally better. Also fucking furious.

The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and has caused controversy ever since. Sometimes credited with helping spark second wave feminism, it examines the “problem with no name”, the sense of dissatisfaction and frustration experienced by housewives in the ’50s and ’60s that lies behind the image of the housewife popping bottles of Valium (or Miltown in the 1950s) in the kitchen and washing it all down with a martini.

The central thesis is that in the years after WWII women were “encouraged” to leave the workforce, get married and return to the home, leaving jobs open for the GIs and producing the baby boom. Teenage marriages became increasingly common, high schools and colleges taught “home economics”, the birth rate skyrocketed, Christian Dior came out with the “New Look” (see this nauseating puff piece)* and popular culture was saturated with the image of the ultra-feminine American homemaker. Less Rosie and more frilly apron…

The result, or so Friedan argues, was a generation of women who were denied (both by themselves and others) the opportunity to develop properly as human beings. The feminine mystique taught that women could find personal and sexual fulfilment as wives and mothers rather than as individuals with their own interests and pursuits. In fact, the development of “masculine” interests (like a career) could prevent women from experiencing love and inhibit their ability to achieve orgasm.** And so we end up with the image of suburban housewives bored to death and high on Mommy’s little helper while popping out baby after baby and spoiling them all rotten. If this sounds like a suggestion that women are not fully human in the way men are, you would be correct.

You can takes some of this with a grain of salt but the overall picture is bleak. The toughest thing is reading samples of her interviews with college girls. So many of these women were talking about dropping their history or chemistry or psychology majors because it would be too easy to get too serious and too sucked in to academics and that would prevent them from living a fulfilling life as a wife and mother. The waste of potential is genuinely heartbreaking.

As many have pointed out, this is hardly intersectional feminism – Friedan’s focus is squarely on the plight of the (white) middle class woman living in the suburbs. This implicitly excludes most if not all women of colour in 1960s America and while she’s clearly not entirely blind to this (she makes reference to the nascent Civil Rights movement borrowing tactics from first wave feminism), it’s certainly not directly addressed. The attitudes towards homosexuality are also deeply retrograde. She’s not blatantly homophobic in a “y’all are an offence against God and you’re going to hell” kind of way but she definitely links (male) homosexuality to a disordered personality arising partly at least from “bad” mothering. It’s not that surprising considering the time of publication but our understanding of homosexuality has come a long way since then and thank goodness (but not God) for that.

As awkward (or more likely deeply uncomfortable) as that all is to read, The Feminine Mystique was part of a paradigm shift and is, therefore, foundational reading within the discipline. Unquestioning acceptance of everything she says is very much not recommended but you do need to be across the drift of the argument.

This is particularly important given recent trends – female participation in the workforce peaked in 1999, the percentage of stay-at-home mums in the US has gone (slightly) up and benzos in the kitchen have made way for wine o’clock (except not really because women are still prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds at much higher rates than men***). Of course, not all women who stay at home are existentially stifled and women are not the only group likely to be adversely affected by a lack of work they find fulfilling and meaningful (see depression rates and the opioid epidemic). But reacquainting yourself with the utter bullshit the women Friedan interviewed had to deal with seems like a good idea.

Now excuse me while I go burn a bra and/or get another degree.

* Quoting Dior’s autobiography “as a result of the war and uniforms, women still looked and dressed like Amazons. But I designed clothes for flower-like women, with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and hand-span waists above enormous spreading skirts” and featuring the line “Christian Dior restored a beautiful, harmonious idea of femininity to women who had been ravaged by poor standards of living.

** Interestingly, and probably not surprisingly, the Kinsey Report found that the opposite was true.

*** Noting that there isn’t really a consensus on why. See also this paper and the Mayo Clinic

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