Sleeping with the enemy: reading “The Feminine Mystique”

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Ok, so the title of this post is a tad dramatic. I wasn’t sleeping with Betty Friedan – it was more like serious flirting. And I’ve never thought of feminists or feminism as the enemy – though I’ve been mightily irked by them at times. I have often thought that many feminists claim to support the choices women make, but only if they are the right ones. Women fixing their own cars, renovating their own homes, breaking sporting records, building careers, getting political? That’s great! Generations of feminists are behind you every step of the way! Women enjoying traditionally feminine pursuits such as cleaning, cooking, tending flowers, crafting? Dialing back their dedication to their professional life to pay a little more attention to their children? Spending money and time to look nice not only for themselves – but possibly for a date? That’s setting back the cause of feminism – being a traitor to women! You are underachieving, and you’re a man’s dupe, to boot. I have also taken issue with the fact that, for some feminists, feminism means more than equality – it means putting men down to lift women up. And, of course, we’ve all heard the irritating stories of feminists actually becoming angry with men over offers to give up a bus seat or hold a door open.

However, I am a reader – anyone who’s spent more than five minutes getting to know me knows I love reading. And how could I resist a book that was labelled one of the “ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries”? My inner child has always made an effort to touch what she’s been told to stay away from. So, I bought Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, and dove into it. I assumed I’d disagree with Friedan on nearly everything, but a good reader suspends judgement – so I tried to keep an open mind. I found, to my surprise, that the book was well-written and contained some solid food for thought.

I had to get around a few things to really embrace the book. Friedan writes with a poorly concealed angry edge. There’s an exhausting amount of talk about sexuality and the ability (or inability, as the case may be) to achieve orgasm. She uses examples that seem extreme. Vast numbers of women who really can’t think of anything to do with themselves after their youngest child no longer needs them, so they dye their hair blonde and have another baby. Women who coddle their children so much that their boys (though they hate their mothers) can’t ever leave them and their girls have no one to look up to. Women who do their children’s homework for them so as to satisfy the academic itch they never dared scratch during their own education. Women who use the time saved by all the modern appliances to think of more housework to do. Women who have no outlet other than sex – and, sex being the only excitement, seek it everywhere, all the time. Women so shallow and insipid that, when asked about their lives, thank God for things like “two cars, two TVs and two fireplaces”. Friedan claims that she, herself, gave up academics to become a wife and mother because her date said “nothing can come of this [their relationship], because I’ll never win a fellowship like yours”. This seems like a very small thing on which to base such a drastic decision.

She shockingly compares the plight of housewives to that of concentration camp inmates in the twelfth chapter, entitled “Progressive Dehumanization: the Comfortable Concentration Camp”. She is careful to say that, of course, being a housewife is not as bad as being a concentration camp victim – but she lost me at the first mention that there could be any comparison between the two.

She seems to think that the answer to every woman’s problems is a career. In the final chapter, “A New Life Plan for Women”, many of the solutions offered to women trying to balance career and family and the home are contingent on money. Many women cannot splash out on a maid or a cook or a nanny, and higher education is financially beyond them, too – but Friedan leans heavily on these things as supports for broadening the minds and lives of women.

In spite of the hyperbole and hysterics, Friedan is generally aware of the various phases of women’s lives and how our needs change in response to these phases. She doesn’t push women to live grim, sexless, solitary lives – she offers ideas for balancing education, careers, children, husband and self. She does not suggest that only one kind of lifestyle is acceptable for women, she is advocating for choices –  for women to have the opportunity to live life whatever way they wish. She doesn’t put men down. She censures women who do, lamenting that the “man-haters” distract from the true purpose of feminism and stir public sentiment against feminists. In several parts of the book, she mentions the role of men in women’s lives as a positive thing, and thanks men for supporting feminism and the women they love. She raises the idea of a masculine mystique that affects men as negatively as the feminine mystique affects women, and calls them “the other half” of what feminists are doing. She encourages women and men to come together in the common struggle for everyone’s rights.

Friedan makes some interesting points about how the concept of women’s liberation was stronger before and during the two world wars. Then, a shell-shocked world longed for the comfort of home and tradition – and women retreated from the progress that had been made to make homes for the returning soldiers. She brings together a number of threads, everything from the education of women to become wives and mothers to what she calls “the sexual sell” – the dependence of advertisers on perpetuating the feminine mystique. Think of all the ads we now laugh at, for everything from coffee to carpet sweepers –  the ads featuring the doe-eyed (usually blonde) housewife with her finger in the eureka position and her face all lit up because now she knows how to get her silverware truly shiny or how to get rid of that ring around the bathtub. We think these ads are funny because it seems ridiculous to suggest that you are not living up to some standard if you aren’t taking care of your family in this way by using this product. Well, once upon a time, these ads were real – new ones being generated daily – and real women were reading them, thinking what they were being told to think, and subconsciously using consumption to become the womanly ideal these companies relied on to stay in the black.

As I was reading the book, a memory came back to me. I was working for my home town, one of those employ-a-student projects that many small towns run every summer. I was making a little under $5 per hour, as that was the minimum wage at the time, for doing a variety of jobs. Everything from cleaning the fire hall to running the community channel bingo to painting the playground to tidying up the cemetery to chopping a mountain of squid into rings to deep fry and sell by the plateful at the town fair. Only in Newfoundland …. Well, one of the things I ended up doing was helping to lay the foundation for a new building. This was hard work. Lifting heavy bags of cement, mixing it, pouring it. Even though I – and the other girls – were side-by-side with the guys every step of the way, doing everything they were doing, we took alot of teasing. The guys minced about, talking in high voices, pretending they couldn’t do this or that because “it’s a girl thing”. About halfway through the day, they switched to teasing us about being manly and asking us if they could see the hair that just had to be on our burly chests because we were doing “a man’s job”. We were concentrating on our work, not goofing off, and accomplished more than they did. They grudgingly admitted that we did a decent job before we all went home. That evening, I wrote in my journal: “It’s unfair. Being a girl working with guys on a manual labour project, you have to be twice as good as they are to be considered half as good.” This was a revelation to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the fact that I was allowed to give this job a try was due to the efforts of previous generations of crusaders. And the fact that all the guys could do about it was tease the girls, and the fact that I was being paid just as much as the guys were …. Also, the fact that I was saving this pay to fund the science degree I was about to obtain.

Though I don’t agree with everything Betty Friedan wrote, her book reminded me that I owe a debt of gratitude to generations of feminists. For better and sometimes for worse, I am (and have always been) fiercely independent – I like doing whatever I damn well please, and heaven help the person who tries to tell me I can’t. I may not choose to do all that I can do, but I have a choice. I can vote. I can marry and divorce whomever I please. There is no career path out of my reach simply because I am female. I can be as girly (or masculine) as I want, and so can Fiona and Bridget. Ryan doesn’t have to hunt, fight or do the heavy-lifting to be called a man and respected as such. We can all be ourselves, and this is partially due to the barriers feminists – female and male – knocked down.

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4 thoughts on “Sleeping with the enemy: reading “The Feminine Mystique”

  1. Pingback: Something’s gotta give …. why not let it? | BethBlog

  2. Pingback: The Girl Who Cried “Body-Shaming”. | BethBlog

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