walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

kindle edition of _The Feminine Mystique_, Betty Friedan

I skipped the introductory matter other than the Preface and Acknowledgements. The publisher is WW Norton, and may I please hear a round of applause for the publisher for making the numbers for the footnotes active links to the relevant note at the end of the text.

*standing ovation*

Thank you.

Friedan was born in 1920. She grew up a mostly secular Jew in Peoria. Her dad owned a jewelry store and her mother had been a writer but stopped when she had children. (A little pause here to think about the Awfulness of growing up Jewish at that time in that place, in terms of discrimination. *shudder*) Friedan graduated from college in 1942. She did a bunch of freelance writing and engaged in some union activism and similar. She got married and they had three kids and moved to the suburbs. After a while, she started writing for women's magazines, and then produced this Important Book which Changed Our World. (<-- Not a joke.)

The thesis of the book is a simple one: women whose whole life is devoted to getting married, taking care of a house and having and raising children are often incredibly unhappy in diverse ways that share a common cause. That cause is that they have unused capabilities and the unmet need to use those capabilities in work that Has Value. There are some differences between the women (some went looking for this life and avoided all alternatives; some were coerced into accepting it; some had education enough to recognize all the things they could be doing; others were just empty and miserable and weren't sure why), and that produces some differences in how it all plays out, but they're unhappy and Something Should Be Done.

The specific Something proposed by Friedan is incremental: women should take their education seriously, embark on their career after college with commitment rather than just "marking time" until marriage. They'll still find love and marriage, just later. They should make an effort to maintain a connection to their education and career throughout the years their children are young, and return to that career full time when their children are in school. Women should have a Life Plan to make sure this happens and Friedan has some Pie in the Sky ideas about how government and educational institutions could support non-traditional education for women.

The common criticism of Friedan is that she doesn't appear to be aware that not every woman is well-educated. This is not strictly speaking true. She is quite aware that not every woman is well-educated. She's even aware that not all women are white (lots of positive references to desegregation in the book -- she's even aware of the difference between legally mandated segregation in the South and de facto segregation elsewhere, and applauds women who worked to get white children into de facto segregated schools). This book was consciously targeted to a particular audience; complaining that she's only talking to (upper) middle class white women is like complaining that Sesame Street has very little to offer an adult viewer.

Chapter 1 sets up the problem ("The Problem That Has No Name"). Chapter 2 engages in some literary analysis of women's magazines (amazing story there about Thurgood Marshall). Chapter 3 is really short and describes the existential identity crisis women have when they contemplate who they are/what they are going to do with their lives. Chapter 4, "The Passionate Journey", is a summary of the history of the women's rights movement in the US (with a teeny tiny bit of the UK thrown in). Chapter 5 is a tour of Freud's thinking on women. I suspect that through the 1980s this was a really compelling chapter. Now, it is just horrifying. Chapter 6 is a tour of "functionalism" in sociology, and a concerted attack on Margaret Mead's contributions to same. While the theory in question was on the way out at the time, and Margaret Mead has to some degree been reduced to that one quote everyone loves about never doubting, this chapter has more relevance than Chapter 5. Chapter 7 describes a long-gone world (that wasn't around that long at the time) in which high schools and colleges encouraged girls to think they should plan on getting married and having babies. Like, immediately. Chapter 8 spends some time trying to understand why US society collectively decided that girls could definitely go to college (maybe even should), but that they should then get married and have babies (lots of them) and move to the suburbs and buy floor waxers and so forth. I quoted from this chapter in an earlier entry (post war wanting to cocoon type of thing), but a huge chunk of the chapter is a full-on assault on involved mothering larded with praise for mothers who have something better to do with their time than attend to the kiddies who should be developing some independence. It's an awful chapter, describing how the kids who were viciously beaten by their Polish immigrant parents in a mill town turned out just fine compared to kids whose mothers were overprotective. It's hard to know whether more details makes this better or worse. Chapter 9 has two notes and internal to the text makes a point of saying she went to this guy's house and went through all this advertising research. But honestly? If someone wanted to complain about Friedan doing an inadequate job of crediting work that influenced her book, I'd be complaining about Friedan failing to credit Vance Packard's _The Hidden Persuaders_, because there is no way in hell she didn't read it before writing this book. The point of the chapter is that advertising experts help corporations figure out how to make women feel unhappy so they'll buy products so they'll feel better. Chapter 10 is an attack on escalating standards of housekeeping. The numbers she cites on hours spend on housework are laughably wrong -- I don't question her sourcing, just note that while her thesis is largely correct (housework _does_ expand to fill the time available), she is claiming way too many hours per week being spent on housework (and yes, I have dug around over at the NBER's website).

It is here, slightly more than halfway through the book, that things start to really go downhill.

Chapter 11, _The Sex-Seekers_, is awful. It's got everything: prudishness, homophobia, the promise that if you have a more active career/life of the mind, you'll have a more active and rewarding sex life, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. Here's a nasty piece of work:

p 4960ish: "Kinsey, from his interviews of 5,940 women, found that American wives, especially of the middle class, after ten or fifteen years of marriages, reported greater sexual desire than their husbands seemed to satisfy. One out of four, by the age of forty, had engaged in some extramarital activity -- usually quite sporadic. Some seemed insatiably capable of "multiple orgams." A growing number engaged in the "extramarital petting" more characteristic of adolescence...But even more disturbing than the signs of increased sexual hunger"

If I read that right, Friedan is "disturbed" that some women have multiple orgasms, and engage in non-penetrative sexual activity (you only do that when you're too young to have real, penetrative sex apparently).

Having waded through the toxic swamp of Chapter 11, however, the reader is confronted with the truly shocking Chapter 12, in which the societal ideal of most women being wives-and-mothers who stay-at-home is presented as being comparable to Nazi concentration camps. I'm really not making this up, and the chapter is actually substantially worse than you are probably imagining, because unwilling to stop at a totally inappropriate metaphor, Friedan then goes on to blame the Jewish victims of the Holocaust for not attacking the camp guards. And of course the reason they didn't do that is because just like young women in 1960s America who didn't use their education, the Jews in the camps had all their adult activities taken away from them.

Honestly, this thing needs to be retired. It makes feminism look bad.

Chapter 13 is devoted to a summary of the human potential movement in psychology, which I am quite a fan of in some respects. My Basic Needs Theory (which is, if you aren't happy, it's probably because you're not getting your Basic Needs met) comes from Maslow, altho I pretty much throw out all the self-actualization stuff because I think people get really goal oriented with that crap and it distracts them from the important things (good food, enough sleep, people to love and be loved by, people to respect and be respected by, interesting things to think about and work on, participation in larger group activities, etc.). Unfortunately, Friedan is mostly interested in the self-actualizing part and the inevitably Who Is Self-Actualized game which is just status seeking in another form and equally if not more annoying (more annoying because it's pretending to be other and/or better than status seeking). There's inaccurate crap in here about whether animals have any sense of the future (duh, of course they do -- wait, she doesn't seem to get that) and how housewives are like soldiers who have had a bullet go through their brain. Really? Because the concentration camp metaphor wasn't enough? The chapter concludes by promising you everything and more if you become a "high dominance woman". (Okay, there's a whole lot about self-actualizing people, too, and how if only you can be one of them, you won't have to worry about gray hairs, or work at your relationships and the hostility will go away and blah, blah, bleeping, blah.) Also, more from Kinsey about how college women have more orgasms.

Chapter 14 describes the Life Plan proposal. Her suggestions for what educational institutions could do to help with this is actually pretty funny; you do have to wonder where she thought the funding was going to come from.

I left some things out (like how autism is because of stay at home mothers, and how all kinds of things like drug use and obesity would improve if women had careers), but that's the basic structure. Friedan has an Issue (women don't have Meaningful Work) and a Solution (women, make a plan to do Meaningful Work). She argues that virtually every problem in postwar America (<-- probably an exaggeration) is somehow connected to the Issue and will be improved by the Solution. Some of these connections make a lot of sense; many of them do not.

The way Friedan constructed the problem and the kind of solution she proposed shaped US society. She accepted a lot of the world the way it was, thus closing off avenues of assistance that other countries used. For example, women are responsible for the children and the housework. This was up for debate in the 1950s: she described "togetherness" in magazine articles and was uniformly contemptuous of it as a possible solution. Togetherness in this context was more or less Father participating in housework and/or child care. Also, she never questioned that the paycheck belonged to the person who earned it. Again, this is not a given. For decades prior to the publication of this book, many households operated under the assumption that all paychecks belonged to the household; usually one of the adults was designated to manage the money. Allowances/walking around money would be doled out after paychecks were turned over. Lest you think this is a difference that makes no difference, in many working class households, it was the mother who managed the money. Friedan alternates between assuming there is enough rewarding work to go around and asserting that it would be better for women to compete for what rewarding work there is available than to take women out of the game entirely. Again, these are not the only two choices: we got a shorter work week as part of Depression era legal reforms to make what work there was more equitably distributed.

Friedan replaced one "feminine mystique" or "ideal women should strive for" with another: Superwoman. She created the "second shift" when she asserted that it was easy to get the housework done before and/or after work and the children needed to do more for themselves in order to learn independence. By accepting Freudian theories of mental illness and, worse, by always looking for an involved mother to blame when the kid wasn't sturdily "normal", she pretends that mental illness in mothers and children will magically disappear if only mothers have rewarding and involving work to do. In the case of autism, she had trouble finding someone to quote in support of this thesis, but she did track one down; it was easier in cases of depression, anxiety and substance abuse -- but equally misguided. (I wonder how she would explain cases of autism where both parents have high-powered careers?)

I am a little mystified that people can read Friedan and latch onto the it's-all-about-rich-white-women while somehow never mentioning the holy fuck what is with that Nazi concentration camp metaphor? I'm not sure what happened. It's possible that people didn't read the whole thing, but I actually don't think that's the case. I think that when this book was published, the background level of bigoted speech about Jews (and Catholics) was so high that exploiting Jewish suffering to make a point about unhappy suburban women was just a little too subtle to measure. I'm not sure why people aren't commenting on it when they read the book now (altho I could readily believe those people aren't finishing the book -- they're probably stopping at Freud).

Friedan was essentially my age when she wrote this book, an observation that was in my mind throughout. I have a good understanding of the ideal she is describing (I was raised a JW; they maintain that ideal still), why it is damaging, and even that in a lot of cases, the only way out is concerted action taken by a young woman on her own behalf. I had guidance counselors discouraging me from pursuing computer science, trying to redirect me to history or other liberal arts; compared to what my religion was telling me, that was pretty easy to ignore. But I also retired very young and then after a few years got married and had two children. Friedan attributes many things to being a wife-and-mother that are not inevitable artifacts of that life situation. She conflates not having one's own money, being in a family that does not take one's needs seriously, gender-divided expectations about who-does-what in the home and a variety of other issues with not-having-rewarding-employment. And I think she drastically underestimates how enjoyable being a dilettante can be if money is not a limiting factor and one's family supports one's needs. It's also really odd to me that she told a story about a bachelor fully capable of running a house with 4 kids in it (cleaning and cooking good meals as well), but then never explores the possibility that wives-and-mothers could find a whole lot more time to do things like work or play if they just handed the housework responsibilities over to the husbands-and-fathers. Friedan is still busy deducting the cost of the housecleaners from mom's paycheck.

There was a cusp in early 1960s, a time when the world was _going_ to change. It wasn't going to be teen marriage and 4 kids forever. Women went to work en masse over the ensuing decades more out of economic necessity than a desire for personal fulfillment (much less prevention of mental illness in themselves or their offspring). But there was an opportunity to decide what the new normal would look like, and this book may have pushed our world quite firmly in the direction it ultimately took. It's hard to know for sure, but it's interesting to read with all that in mind.

Beyond historical perspective, Friedan's writing is quite brilliant as polemic and potentially worth reading for that purpose. OTOH, we live in a world with very different narrative expectations and preferences -- you'd be better off reading Obama's books if you want to learn how to convince people.

Other than historical perspective and an instance of effective polemic, _The Feminine Mystique_ is in many ways distasteful and offensive. It's a common problem in books which succeeded in creating the world we live in. They got us something we really needed, but their motivations and prejudices are repulsive and at times incomprehensible. And in this particular case, I found it continually grating to see assumptions I am still railing against reified at a time when they might have been chipped away at instead.

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