books for women, Culture, Els' Rabbit Trails, personal, philosophy, Uncategorized

My Final, Personal Conclusions of The Feminine Mystique

This is a more personal exposition, but because my Feminine Mystique posts may have been a jumble of ambiguity to those who wondered what I really think, I want to break it down a bit. I have learned the hard way that nothing goes without saying anymore. Everything which follows is offered from the perspective of my Christian worldview.

The book was pretty much what I expected. Liberals are quite predictable. They identify a thing that rightly needs to be addressed, and then offer a poison pill as the answer to the problem. Having had only secondary knowledge of the book mostly presented from the perspective of devoted feminists or devoted anti-feminists, I wanted to read it for myself. I’ve learned to mistrust the assertions of rabid ideologues.

What Friedan got right: It is silly and anti-Biblical to relegate women to a domain solely related to what they produce sexually. The notion that a woman is designed by God, filled with His Spirit, endowed with gifts, and no one except husband and kids is supposed to reap the benefit is nuts. When you look at Friedan’s source material, it’s easy to see that something had gone terrible wrong. After WWII, women reverted almost to a Disney Princess existence, where all of life -including attending college!- was about snagging a husband. Then upon marriage, nothing mattered but keeping the house perfectly clean and the husband perfectly happy. I’m all for clean houses and happy husbands, but stay with me.

What Friedan got terribly wrong -and feminists today, including Christian feminists get wrong- is this notion that women were unfulfilled at home because they were excluded from the greater world, and that the way to bridge that gap was to leave their homes and go to work. WRONG!

We can be homemakers, full time housewives, and make a difference in the world through the use of our gifts and talents. I will use my life as an example. I have been at home 24 years. When our older girls were in school, I volunteered at their school two mornings a week. I taught several struggling students how to read, offered them love and encouragement, and it only cost me three hours a week. My home was not neglected. This was before we entered the glorious years of homeschooling.

A Christian friend of mine from our neighborhood taught a parenting class in the school based on the book “Boundaries with Kids” and I helped facilitate it. I was on both the PTA and the SCA.  I served in the greeter’s ministry at our church two Sunday mornings per month, and authored and published the monthly newsletter for the helps ministry.

Later, our entire family, led by my husband, served in our city’s men’s homeless shelter twice a month for over 10 years. We cooked for those men, served them, prayed with those men, and our children from earliest ages were right there with us. When our 4th and 5th children arrived, my life slowed down tremendously, but we still worked with the homeless although my role moved farther into administrative stuff through the outreach ministry until the two youngest were tall enough and coordinated enough to fill ice glasses and roll silverware. They were 4 and 6.

During the slower years, I started taking my babies with me to visit a couple of elderly widows in our subdivision, and boy did they love being able to play with my cute little babies!

Now we homeschool, but we also utilize a classical group two days a week. I teach a literature and writing class there in exchange for a tuition break. Again, no career, but I am contributing to a community. Not to worry though. My house is clean and my husband is happy.

Who in their right mind would say I hadn’t contributed to the world outside of my home? Who would claim that my contributions would have been greater if they were offered in the form of a career? Friedan certainly would, but a decent chunk of traditional Christian teachers of women might argue that I dedicated too much energy outside of my home, even though I was doing exactly as my husband directed, and even though my kids and home were well taken care of. Americans, including Christians, have almost completely abandoned the role of women as community builders. What better way to use our gifts?

This is why I get disturbed by and perturbed with people on both sides of this argument. One wants woman to abandon her home and the other wants to imprison her in it. Neither is what God intended.

Currently, I am considering classes to prepare me for what I hope is a book that serves as a much better Christian approach to femininity for a group of women who are by and large, in a very tough spot on these issues. Many of my females relations and friends, even those who love me dearly, view me as either highly privileged or very weak for situating my life so fully dependent on my husband.

You see, we don’t have these “to stay at home or not to stay at home” debates among black women. It is largely accepted that most black women cannot stay home. I want to talk about how we can change that for our daughters’ generation besides simply saying, “Marry a man of a different race!” which is basically the prescription being offered to single, childless black women right now. When I write it, I want it to be readable, hence school.

I thought it was only fair when I reviewed the book to be honest about the fact that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Acknowledging that Betty Friedan raised some very good questions isn’t to say I think her conclusions or prescriptions were correct.

 

Because I don’t.

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American history, books for women, Culture, marriage and relationships, nonfiction

The Feminine Mystique: Ch. 10

feminine mystique

This is the 6th post in the series on The Feminine Mystique.

I’ve tired of Betty Friedan’s commentary, despite this book being on the list of books that helped shape America. Although I concede that she made a few valid arguments, this book grew increasingly redundant as it went on. I’m not sure if I’ll add any more posts to this series, mainly because the more I read, the more narrow Friedan’s analysis and study appears. I recognized early that her attempt to liberate “American women” had nothing to do with my mother or grandmothers for obvious reasons.

However, I now see it had very little to do with the mothers and grandmothers of my many friends from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and regions of this country. This book, as feminism has always done, speaks for a privileged and elite group of women. The fact that they propagandized their complaints well enough to trick the rest of us into believing that feminism was also about us does nothing to change the ultimate truth. Chapter 10, however, is an interesting one. It’s about a topic that interests me as well, so let’s explore it.

Chapter 10: Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available.

Mrs. Friedan discusses the ways which women -together with the educators, functionality experts and expert marketers- contrived to convert housekeeping from work that “can be capably handled by any eight-year-old child”, to a full-time occupation which takes 6 hours a day to complete. Friedan and one of her experts assert that the work is often incomplete by dinner  despite a wife working diligently all day to complete it:

But when the mystique of feminine fulfillment sent women back home again, housewifery had to expand into a full-time career. Sexual love and motherhood had to become all of life, had to use up, dispose of women’s creative energies. The very nature of family responsibility had to expand to take the place of responsibility to society. As this began to happen, each labor-saving appliance brought a labor-demanding elaboration of housework. Each scientific advance that might have freed women from the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and washing, thereby giving her more time for other purposes, instead imposed new drudgery, until housework not only expanded to fill the time available, but could hardly be done in the available time. p. 286

Here, Friedan parks right alongside a good point. However, due to her adamance that a career was the answer to the disillusion women faced, she missed a valuable opportunity. Instead of denouncing the increasing materialism and isolation of suburban family life, she decided that what women really need is be more like men. Eight years ago a writer friend of mine took an excellent turn at expressing the problems that came with the increase of ‘labor saving” devices, the nuclear family as the center of life to the exclusion of broader community cohesiveness, with emphasis on the sexual domain as the sole purpose of a woman’s life. From her 2011 article, Return of the Washerwoman (link unavailable):

Yes, you have a washing machine in your basement, but you used to only have three changes of clothes per person, and many had their laundry washed for them. I know this for certain, as my aunt’s family used to run a laundry service and she swears that her family washed the laundry for the entire urban neighborhood. Women bought washing machines, which killed the washerwoman business, but then everyone’s wardrobes grew exponentially.

For all of the talk of “pioneer women”, they were a small minority of women and many tended to be dead before they hit 50. Most women 100 years ago were doing a similar level of housework and homeschooling as I am, but they didn’t have to take on the additional chauffeuring duties, they weren’t as isolated, and they weren’t expected to look like a lingerie model and turn tricks in the bedroom that would put some prostitutes to shame. The workdays were also shorter before cheap electric lighting and most people got more sleep.

In other words, Friedan was right about the evolution of the suburban housewife, and she was even right about the changing nature of the work women did in and around the home:

And yet, for the suburban and city housewife, the fact remains that more and more of the jobs that used to be performed in the home have been taken away: canning, baking bread, weaving cloth and making clothes, educating the young, nursing the sick, taking care of the aged. It is possible for women to reverse history- or kid themselves that they can reverse it-by baking their own bread, but the law doesn’t permit them to teach their own children at home, and few housewives would match their so-called generalist’s skills with the professional expertise of doctor and hospital to nurse a child through tonsillitis or pneumonia at home.

A lot has changed since this was written, as most of us can -many do- educate our children at home.  Even the brightest among us, however -and I know a lot of very bright women-find that we are helped immensely in that endeavor by educational support systems which include other women, a point which brings me to the overwhelming flaw in Mrs. Friedan’s conclusion. The flaw is assuming that being a housewife and contributing to the larger world are mutually exclusive endeavors.

Unfortunately, it’s also a trap that a lot of well meaning Christians mistakenly fall into, believing that we can bring back the good old days simply by doing things the ways our grandmothers did them in order to fill the days. Ask any woman who sews her own clothes how expensive it is to purchase high-quality woven fabrics and this notion is quickly disabused. Fortunately, it is possible to “be all you can be” as a woman without doing so on man’s terms nor pretending we can live a 1919 existence in 2019.

Women are supposed to be contributing to society outside of the four walls of our homes, we are supposed to be serving people besides our own immediate families, and we are  to use our gifts, creative energies and talents to the fullest. We should be volunteering in our churches. We should be active in our children’s schools. We should be visiting the elderly and extending ourselves to those in various states of need.

Life has provided me ample opportunities for intellectual stimulation,  to utilize my talents, and to contribute to society in ways I never imagined when I was a 23-year-old  housewife. I spent years living under the delusion that being at home might waste my talents. I realized early on that I could not have been more mistaken.

Mrs. Friedan’s assertion that the only way women contribute or exercise their potential is through careerism is wrong. The dissolution of community and the disappearance of engaged extended families has proven that her prescription, rather than freeing women, has only served to increase their burdens. Women who work, whether at subsistence jobs or in “fulfilling careers”, still have to endure the “drudgery” of housework. It’s just added on as a second shift, and they have to do it without much support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

books for women, Culture, Digital reading, marriage and relationships, nonfiction

The Black Girl’s Guide to Being Blissfully Feminine.

blissfully feminine

The Black Girl’s Guide to Being Blissfully Feminine, by Candace Adewole. Kindle edition. Originally published in July 2016.

This is a short book, one I was able to read from beginning to end in about two hours. Nonetheless, it’s full of thought-provoking, soul-stirring truisms that black women need to hear. It’s not perfect as no book is, but -and this is especially true for the non-religious woman- it’s the truest counsel I’ve ever read directed at black women. Ms. Adewole well expresses what it is going to take for black women to stop being considered, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “the mules of the world”.

Because it’s a short book, I’m going to keep this review short by using the bad news first/good news last approach. Thankfully, there is far more good news than bad.

The Bad News

  • It sometimes felt a little new-agey when the author ventured off into discussions of “black girl magic” and “feminine mystique”, not to be confused with the Betty Friedan school of thought.
  • Some of the sex advice went too far. The best way to figure out how to please your husband -in any area- is to ask him or read obvious context clues if he’s less given to saying what he wants.
  • Too extreme on the provisional aspect of a relationship in the dating stage: I get and completely agree with the overall principle that one of the things a man is charged to do is provide for his woman. However at the dating stage, I don’t think it is wise to advise that a woman should never split the bill or pick up the tab. My experience, old and limited though it may be, is that it is entirely possible to find the balance and still end up with a husband ready and willing to be the primary provider.
  • Too much emphasis on the value of travel, although I can appreciate her assertion that other cultures are more open to acknowledge the beauty of darker women than one finds here in America. It’s something I’ve heard expressed by various women throughout my life.

The Good News

  • Despite my discomfort with the sexual specifics, the sexual advice to women in the market for a husband was very conservative. In fact, the author advised women to refrain from sex at all until officially engaged and wedding plans in motion. No, it doesn’t go far enough to satisfy the tenets of my Christian faith, but it isn’t a Christian book and the author didn’t specify any religious faith.
  • Excellent advice on the value of silence and -if you must speak- doing so quietly with language free of any and all profanity. Truthfully, from what I have seen and heard, this is hardly advice only black women need to hear. It has nothing to do with prudishness, snobbishness, or religiosity (though that should be a consideration for some of us). It has everything to do with femininity and grace.
  •  Acknowledging the healing power of feminine touch. Although it was something the author learned via observation through marriage to a Latino man, being affectionate not only with our men but our friends and family members is important. We Americans tend to zealously guard our space bubbles, and the hypersexualization of the culture coupled with many black women’s penchant for wearing permanent armor makes this a hard hurdle to leap. But at least she put it out on the track.
  • The understanding that being comfortable in your own skin and with where you came from isn’t mutually exclusive to forming bonds with all kinds of people and meeting all kinds of men.
  • The importance of smiling, laughing, not going through life with a chip on your shoulder, and avoiding what is known as “resting bi*ch face“. There was also included the advice to use a gratitude journal if necessary to maintain a more positive outlook.
  • Emotional vulnerability: Mules can’t be emotionally vulnerable. When you are carrying your load, your kids’ load, your man’s load, and doing so without missing a beat, emotional vulnerability is an unaffordable luxury. Black women are expected to “hold it down” for everyone, and Adewole -rightly- calls B.S. on that. Many black women take on this role, swallow their feelings (literally and figuratively if our obesity rates are any indication), and wear the superhero cape with pride. That is, right up until they crash and burn (if mental illness and instability rates are any indication). Adewole address all of these issues with frankness and candor, understanding that rather than airing dirty laundry, she’s invoking the permission to heal and live a balanced life.
  • Acknowledgment that wanting to be loved and cherished is as acceptable for black women as any other women. She did a good job overall, so I’ll wrap this up with my favorite lines from the book:

I thoroughly detest being called a “strong” black woman for its masculine connotation, the underlying implication that I am somehow built for hard labor, like some animal, and that I am undeserving to be treated like a lady who needs (and wants) to be protected, cared for, adored, cherished, and treated gently.

She continues a bit further on:

I prefer to be called a feminine black woman or a resilient black woman because, although technically a synonym of the word “strong”, the meaning feels better and more feminine. Resilience and personal fortitude are what you must have mentally and emotionally to get through tough times. I don’t want to be “strong”. I DO need a man. I DO want help. I DO want to be taken care of and protected. I DO need community, and I wear dresses, not capes.

There was a some beauty and health advice in the book as well, but those chapters are all well tilled ground, unlike the parts I highlighted here. I stumbled upon this book and read it for the curiosity factor, having been spared a lot of these struggles through the presence of strong, protective men throughout my entire life and marriage. But I think it is well worth a read for the 70% of black women who have not been so blessed.

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

American history, books for women, Culture, nonfiction

Feminine Mystique Ch. 7-9

feminine mystique

This is the fifth post exploring Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. The first four posts are here, here, here, and here.

In chapters 7-9 of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan goes deeper into unpacking the whys and wherefores that created the problem that has no name which she asserted was afflicting so many middle-class American women.

Chapter 7: The Sex-Directed Educators

Here, Friedan floats her hypothesis that one reason so many bright young college co-eds treated college as a boring necessity to appease parents on their way to the altar was that the professors and college administrators had swallowed Freud’s (and functionalist Margaret Mead’s) theories. Namely they accepted the analysis which presented women purely through the lens of their sexuality, and to encourage them towards any interest in the life of the mind was to corrupt them, rendering them useless in their roles as wives and mothers:

If the Freudians and the functionalists [like Margaret Mead] were right, educators were guilty of defeminizing American women, of dooming them to frustration as housewives and mothers, or to celibate careers, to life without orgasm. It was a damning indictment; many college presidents and educational theorists confessed their guilt without a murmur and fell into the sex-directed line. P. 180

I know that there are a lot of people who agree with this view, but I do not, and it’s not because I am a proponent of women en masse directing all of their youthful energy in the pursuit of education and careers. I disagree with it for the very question Friedan raises later on in this particular part of the chapter:

Why do the educators view girls, and only girls, in such completely sexual terms? P.191

I will elaborate on my thoughts in my discussion of chapter 8.

In essence this chapter attempts to make the case that the time after WWII was the death knell of the period of expanded opportunities for women that came occurred before the double tragedies of The Great Depression and WWII. And that the educators helped to facilitate that end in the lives of those women smart and talented enough to attend college.

Chapter 8: The Mistaken Choice

The mistaken choice is an astute and accurate title for the post because often women are offered a falsely dichotomous choice. We are told we must choose between a life devoted fully to hearth, husband and children with no interest in participating in or engaging in any activity outside of those scopes on the one hand. On the other, we’re told that the only way to be completely fulfilled in our gifts and talents is to combine our desire for home and family with a full time career.

Here is where Friedan makes an astute point but where she, and frankly many thinkers and commentators to the far right of her, get it all absolutely, completely wrong. But this is about Friedan, who mistakenly thinks that the answer to women’s problems is to be free to live as men, complete with competing against them in the marketplace. It’s a lose-lose for women because men are always going to be tempted to let women win, and too many of us will find out too late that we’re in over our heads, swimming out of our depths.

This is a mistaken choice, and there is a middle ground, but first, the reason why Friedan believes women chose the former, and in estimation, lesser of the two choices:

After the loneliness of the war and the unspeakableness of the bomb, against the frightening uncertainty, the cold immensity of the changing world, women as well as men sought the comforting reality of home. P. 213

She argues rightfully that it is a mistake for a woman to frame her life in such terms:

The needs of sex and love are undeniably real in men and in women, boys and girls, but why at this time did they seem to so many the only needs? P. 213

One of the things I appreciate my husband for, and this is especially true in recent years, is that he has always encouraged me to build relationships, take breaks when I need them, nurture my gifts and talents, and make an impact on the world around me in ways which are reasonable in the context of my vocation as a wife and mother. If too much time goes by and I haven’t gone to lunch with a friend, or taken time to write, or recently, followed through on my desire to return to school to study a particular thing, he reminds me to do those things. And of course, there is always the necessity to extend ourselves in service to others.

He is acutely in tune with the truth that a day could come prematurely when he is not here to be the center of my activity, no doubt because we have both experienced many deep losses at times that are out of step with the typical trajectory. He doesn’t want me to have a career, but neither does he want me to make a falsely dichotomous choice whereby I am failing as a woman if this house is not the center of my world, which just makes me want to take care better care of him, our home, and our children.

To treat women as though it is immoral not to be completely fulfilled by the activity done while confined within four walls is dehumanizing and burdensome.

There’s an interesting note in this chapter that often gets lost in our current culture (and one that is even glossed over glibly by many when reading Proverbs 31). We forget -or maybe we are simply ignorant of it- that there have always been times in history when it was entirely, expected, accepted, and traditional for women who could afford it to create a saner life for themselves by hiring out household chores to available women who needed the income and were available to do it. Suddenly, after the war, this became something women frowned on:

But in the years of postwar femininity, even women who could afford, and find, a full-time nurse or housekeeper chose to take care of the house and children [entirely] themselves. P.216

Chapter 9: The Sexual Sell

Chapter 9 is basically a deconstruction of Friedan’s belief that a large portion of the influence on women’s choice to abandon finding fulfillment in a life of the mind, intellect, and making a difference in the world can be lain at the feet of advertisers.

She spends a lot of time recalling what she says she learned from a man whose job was to study how to market and monetize the role of an American housewife. The consumerist juggernaut Friedan rightly condemns did what it does:

Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy things for the house. In all the talk of femininity and women’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business. P.243

I’ll wrap this up with a quote Friedan offers from the marketing magnate himself:

Properly manipulated (“if you are not afraid of that word”, he said), American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack—by the buying of things. I suddenly realized the significance of the boast that women wield 75% of the purchasing power in America. P. 245

The irony is that advertisers are still raking in billions a year selling sexual power and security to ever dissatisfied American women, and this remains true regardless of their station in life.

 

 

 

 

 

American history, books for women, Culture, nonfiction

The Feminine Mystique: Ch 5-6

feminine mystique

This is the fourth post in a series on the Betty Friedan’s seminal feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique. The first post can be read here. Subsequent posts are here and here.

In chapters five and six, Friedan once again puts her fingers on the pulse of something real and true, then bungles the whole thing with a toxic antidote. Chapter 5 discusses at length the work and impact of Sigmund Freud on sexuality, sex roles, and analysis. Chapter 6 follows up with a critique of the social sciences as a whole and their failure in freeing women to be full and complete human beings.

Chapter 5: The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud

Before I get into the analysis, I have to admit that the title of this chapter, given what we know of Freud on even a cursory level, is funny and truthful. I will give Friedan credit for that. Freud’s own twisted view of sex at the center of any and everything we do or think in life was not only wrong, but has reverberated in ways that are still harmful when these subjects arise.

Friedan goes into great detail examining Freud’s life, work, and relationships as documented by by his family members and biographers. This paints a picture of a man who, no matter how brilliant, was quite unhinged on matters of sex. Nothing that I’ve read about Freud leads me to believe she was wrong about that.

She argues that Freud made every attempt to infantilize his wife, whose constitution turned out to be much stronger than he realized. It made, Friedan claimed, for a  difficult marriage which cemented Freud’s conclusions. He believed women incapable of being both feminine (interpreted as a focus on husband, hearth and offspring) and masculine (interpreted as being capable of accomplishing anything else). That in fact, trying to do both creates a neurosis in the female psyche of clinical proportions.

Of course, Friedan finds this highly offensive and this entire long chapter is a well worded screed against Freud and captivity it enabled woman to continue in during a season when she should be experiencing everything the world has to offer her.

I found this ironic. On the one hand, I agree that Freud was damaging to women, yet on the other, I think there is some veracity to the notion that women’s attempts to put energy into both family and career creates in us a neurosis. It ‘s a neurosis that men, for reasons I cannot begin to know, don’t seem to be burdened with while establishing careers and building a family simultaneously.

I didn’t say that I believe women are only suited to bread baking and baby bearing. I just think that 60 years of feminist progress has proven part of Freud’s assertion to be true. Friedan would argue that this neurosis happens because we’ve been made to feel guilty when we try to do both, but I disagree. There is something in the feminine psyche, a feminine mystique if you will, that doesn’t like being pulled in these two different directions.

Freud’s theory of “penis envy” is of course, patently absurd on its face. So much so that I cannot deign to discuss it and agree with Friedan that it only poisoned the well of what could have been a substantive conversation on the roots of “the female problem”. I chalk it up to being a daughter of Eve but this is not the discussion we’re having at the moment. I will end the discussion of chapter 5 with this quote, which I agree with Friedan much more than I’d care to admit, and I’ll explain why in the next portion on chapter 6:

It was as if Freud’s Victorian image of woman became more real than the twentieth-century women to whom it was applied. Freud’s theory of femininity was seized in America with such literalness that women today were considered no different than Victorian women. The real injustices life held for women a century ago, were dismissed as mere rationalizations of penis envy. And the real opportunities life offered to women now, compared to women then, were forbidden in the name of penis envy.

Chapter 6: The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead

As I read this book I keep -you may notice- coming back around to the phrase, “finger on the pulse of a true problem while offering a toxic prescription”. I suspect that this is because my Christian worldview refuses to allow me to see anyone as a biological tool designed to function apart from the living soul which was breathed into us by the Creator of the universe. This brings me to Friedan’s continuing critique of the social sciences in chapter 6.

In chapter 6 Friedan makes the point that social scientists including Margaret Mead, piggybacked on Freud’s initial conclusions while trying to avoid his unscientific value judgements. They began to embrace what they referred to as functionalism:

In practice, functionalism was less a scientific movement than a scientific word-game. “The function is” was often translated “the function should be”; the social scientists did not recognize their own prejudices in functional disguise any more than the analysts recognized theirs in Freudian disguise. By giving an absolute meaning and a sanctimonious value to the term “woman’s role”, functionalism put American women into a kind of deep freeze- like Sleeping Beauties, waiting for a Prince Charming to waken them, while all around the magic circle the world moved on.

On the one hand, she has a point. Reducing any person, male or female to the sum total of their biological functions is an affront to the God who made us spirit, soul, and body. However, because it is clear that Friedan decided that the way to integrate all of these parts was to strive for worldly and career recognition rather than pour our energies into loving and serving our fellow man, she only gets half credit for her observation. As in math, missing one critical decimal point renders everything after it, including the solution, incorrect and useless.

It’s true that relegating woman to the sum total of her ovaries and uterus being put to use keeps women from growing up in ways that make them proper and valuable wives in other ways. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned with that aspect of a woman’s growing up.

It’s too bad, because failure to acknowledge the true importance of being an effective wife and mother, of focusing on education and careers while dismissing biological realities and differences, has still left us with a generation of women who never grow up. She and her second wave sisters dropped the ball terribly. See today’s screechy, activist, empowered women for evidence.

I really enjoyed this quote while being struck by the overwhelming irony of it, so I’ll end with it:

But why would any social scientist, with godlike manipulative authority, take it upon himself -or herself- to protect women from the pains of growing up?

Why indeed? Of course, these “pains of growing up” necessarily include accepting reality, including biological realities.

Until next time…

 

 

 

American history, books for women, Culture, nonfiction

The Feminine Mystique Chapters 3-4

feminine mystique

This is the third in a series of posts –the first is here– examining The Feminine Mystique, one of the Library of Congress’ “books that helped shape America”.

Chapter 3: The Crisis in Woman’s Identity

After missing the opportunity to offer something substantive in chapter 2, this third of The Feminine Mystique strikes the match which lights the fire of my contempt for feminist theory. She spends the chapter using the experiences of a very privileged class of women, those with college educations at a time when few including men, even went to college, to claim that women en masse suffered crises of identity.

From her interview with a 17-year-old popular high school girl to one with a woman of middle age, she pronounces a crisis onto something inherent in human nature and feminine nature in particular, regardless of the era or political climate. It would be easy to note that our historical vantage point makes it easier to see how silly it was for her to pretend women were suffering from a new psychological malady, but the evidence was conclusive on the matter far before Friedan burst on to the scene with her analysis.

She starts by recounting how as a young woman, after the news that she had won a graduate fellowship, she was gripped by the question, “Is this really what I want to be?”. From there she launches into all the reasons why women who felt they never had any choice but to become a wife and mother are trapped in the throes of the same dilemma. She then goes on to recall the “old maids” she knew, the female teachers, doctors, etc. who had never married, and knew she didn’t want to be of those women either.

So the women she interviewed and attended college with didn’t want to become their mothers (the horror!) didn’t want to waste their educations, and didn’t want to be old maids, but didn’t want their lives defined by their association with their husbands or as mothers of their children. Her conclusion, hardly novel, was that the crisis of women’s identity was rooted in the fact that women couldn’t have “it all”. She gives a passing nod to the notion that boys and men suffer these same crises of identity, but the topic leaves me cold for several reasons.

As a Christian, I understand that it is foolish to valuate your worth as a person on things temporal and transient. I adore my husband and our marriage has shaped me in more ways than I can count, but he could die tomorrow. I would no longer be a wife. We have been blessed with 5 beautiful offspring, but many women’s wombs are closed despite a deep desires to be mothers. Jobs come and go, and earthly treasures are always at risk of being here today and gone tomorrow.

However, to the extent that the veracity of our character and depth of love is judged, it can only be done through the lens of relationships. The way we love our families, friends, and those closest to us is what matters. Very few of us are going to leave any lasting impact on the world for very long after we are gone, and those we impact most aren’t going to remember us for our educational and professional credentials.

Friedan -as expected- misses the mark by a mile here. What’s worse, she basically confirms the idea that most women want nothing less than fried ice in order to be happy.

Chapter 4: The Passionate Journey

This was a long chapter compared the first three, but it was by far the most interesting because it is chock full of historical notes. Friedan traces the the “passionate journey” of the mid-19th century feminists who fought for women’s rights alongside abolitionists fighting for the emancipation of southern slaves. Starting with the excerpts from grievances against man presented at the Seneca Falls women’s convention of 1848, she attempts to build the case that feminists of that era were simply fighting for women to be acknowledged as fully human, just as men were:

It is a strangely unquestioned perversion of history that the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters, from castrating, unsexed non-women who burned with such envy for the male organ that they wanted to take it away from all men, or destroy them, demanding rights only because they lacked the power to love as women. Mary Wollstonecraft, Angeline Grimke, Ernestine Rose, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Sanger all loved, were loved, and married; many seemed to be as passionate in their relations with lover and husband, in an age when passion in a woman was as forbidden as intelligence, as they were in their battle for woman’s chance to grow to full human stature.

But if they, and those like Susan Anthony, whom fortune or bitter experience turned away from marriage, fought for a chance for woman to fulfill herself, not in relation to man, but as an individual, it was from a need as real and burning as the need for love. (“What woman needs”, said Margaret Fuller, “is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her”.)

The feminists had one image, one image, of a full and free human being: man. p.83-84

From there she goes on to recount the journey of those first wavers, explore the highlights of their activism, and the fervent support one in particular had from her husband. Lucy Stone, who gets a lot of ink in this chapter, is an interesting choice as Friedan’s  flagship image of early feminism. Not only was she particularly feminine in appearance of demeanor, but she also reportedly had a passionate love affair with her husband who waited several years for her to consent to marriage. She agonized over the love she felt for him, kept her name, and these were the vows they said at their wedding:

While we acknowledge our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife…we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority. p.93

I have all kinds of thoughts about that, but 1100 words is more than enough. There is a comfort in knowing that King Solomon was right. There really is nothing new under the sun; at least as it relates to human nature.

American history, books for women, Culture, nonfiction

The Feminine Mystique: Chapters 1-2

feminine mystique

The first in a series of posts examining the seminal feminist manifesto in detail. The introductory post can be found here.

Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name

Friedan begins by describing a general sensation of malaise and disquietude in American women, particularly those who seem to have it all. She describes a level of discontent and unhappiness which, she determines, at its root can be encapsulated in one question: Is this all there is?

A crop of women who emerged from colleges harboring dreams of a future which resembled the the feminist ideal of the New Woman, were suddenly living the life of an ordinary woman. Unlike the New Woman, who was in control of her professional, economic, and social life, these women lived the exact opposite of the lives they’d dreamed of. The jarring realization that they were defined solely through the lens of wife and motherhood induced a psychological crisis as a result of being “just housewives”.

Suffering no material lack their lives were quite comfortable. Nevertheless they were, according to Friedan, turning to psychoanalysts in large numbers for help with this indescribable problem of emptiness and lives bereft of meaning.

My initial response was two-fold. The first is that most of these women were, in two words, spoiled and bored. There is no other way to describe being dissatisfied despite having everything you need and more besides.

That thought which followed was the fantastical notion of her narrative as normative. It certainly wasn’t any experience my grandmothers could have related to. The pampered home life, that Friedan described as the bane of the American woman’s existence was foreign to no less than 1/3 of women, including married women, and probably a larger percentage than that.

Few ordinary women lived lives of ease with no concerns of contributing to their family’s bottom line. Prior to the economic boom that followed WWII, this was not the experience of the average woman, and it had nothing to do with feminism. Proverbs 30: 8-9 was the standard mode of living for most families. Most married women, even when primarily focused on home and hearth, rarely had the privilege that came with being a housewife; at least not in the way we have been conditioned to view the station from the 1950s onward.

Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine

In this chapter, Friedan starts to make at least one cogent argument, even if she gets a lot of things wrong. But first it is here where she actually describes the so-called Feminine Mystique:

The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man;it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. p.35

It bears noting that the whole point of this book is to rebut the very notion of this feminine mystique, and its irony is not lost on me. We do derive a large part of our identity through our femininity, but not in the way that Friedan describes. Those who, well-intentioned they may be, believe that this “feminine mystique” is an appropriate aspirational end for women also err, albeit too far in the other direction.

Friedan offers a surfeit of supporting evidence using content from ladies’ magazines, which was the dominant media directed at women during the 1950s. It was determined that women would read magazines, but not books so periodicals such as Redbook, McCall’s, and Ladies Home Journal grew hugely popular.

Prior to the post WWII boom, propelled by the gains women enjoyed due to the work of the women’s rights activists of the 1910s and 1920s, the media of the 1940s heavily featured aspects of the New Woman. The New Woman was independent, making her way in the world, and enjoying the benefits of new opportunities available to her in both work and politics. She was the feminist ideal encompassing all that women wanted to be, and was prominently featured by writers in the 30s and 40s.

Suddenly, in the 1950s, Friedan notes, magazines and the few books marketed to women switched on a dime with most featuring what she called the “happy housewife heroine”. Despite being a housewife myself, the excerpts and descriptions from the articles and stories she quoted left me scratching my head. What man worth anything would want such a vapid, incompetent woman for a wife? They made it far too easy for her ideas to catch fire.

As the chapter progressed an interesting dichotomy emerged. Friedan’s answer to mystery of how genuinely interesting news content and stories of adventurous, independent women of the 1940s gave way to the consumer drivel, beauty tips and the “happy housewife heroine” of the 1950s turned out not to be much of a mystery at all.

The authors of the1940s periodicals were mostly female, as the men in the country were fighting or recovering from the battles of WWII. After they returned home, replacing the women who went home to marry and start families in the aftermath of the war, the material they published revealed a starkly different image of ideal womanhood. It reflected the idea of woman as a place of solace, respite, and sex after the harsh war years.

Both ideals as presented were damaging and more than a little ridiculous, but we’ll get more into that as we move through the book. I hardly need to read further to see where the train went off the track, but for you guys, I’ll forge on. Who knows? I might be surprised and learn something.