A half-century after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, it’s hard to avoid thinking about another Betty – the fabulously unhappy housewife on TV’s Mad Men.
An accomplished model-turned-mother, she seems to have it all, until her husband goes off to work and her kids go off to school, and she’s stuck with destructively empty hours in the pristine suburbs. What is there to do, really, but buy another dress, another lamp, maybe a bottle of something strong, to ward off the painful, nagging question: “Is this all there is?”
This is the question that Ms. Friedan challenged real-life Bettys in the burbs to finally confront. Based on her own life and interviews with hundreds of other women, The Feminine Mystique finally addressed openly “the problem with no name” – that comfortable female domesticity and the consumer and political culture that supported it had become a trap for middle-class women, keeping them from authentic lives, and from being authentic citizens.
To say that direct discussion of the “feminine mystique” was incendiary is an understatement: Ms. Friedan’s 1963 book changed the way millions of women thought about themselves. And she is often credited with kick-starting second-wave feminism. (Born in 1921, she went on to found the National Organization for Women; she died in 2006.)
But that was then. These days, Betty is a troubled TV character. Do her struggles still resonate? Or are they merely reminders of a less progressive era? What would women who, perhaps, saw their mother read The Feminine Mystique, or read it themselves and reflected on the lives their mothers lived, or who became mothers – even grandmothers – and never found the time to read the book at all, make of it now?
Globe Focus asked three of the newspaper’s most compelling female voices – India bureau chief Stephanie Nolen, feature writer Sandra Martin and columnist Elizabeth Renzetti – to pick up the book again and weigh in.
SN: Oddly, I was just realizing today, even though when I first read The Feminine Mystique at university it made me think immediately of my own mother – who had a vibrant career that she was forced to leave to go live in the suburbs and raise three children – I’ve never talked to her about the book.
SM: I would never dream of discussing this book with my mother! She bought in entirely to the “feminine mystique” – entirely.
ER: My mother was completely the opposite. She was a nurse, she had four children … there was not a lot of cooking snails au gratin at home, let me tell you.
SN: Liz, did your mom work for economic reasons?
ER: Partly, but I think my mother was also just a genius at nursing. I think if you had asked her after a 12-hour shift, “Would you like to quit?” she would have said, “Oh, yes.” But I think she loved it very much.
SM: That’s the thing we get wrong about The Feminine Mystique, though. It’s not a book about either/or – about abandoning your family to run off and become a lawyer. It asks women to nurture themselves – first at school, and then, when the children are gone, by finding meaning and purpose elsewhere.
SN: But don’t you think Ms. Friedan stepped back from a cliff there? I think she wanted to say: “Ditch them! Get out! Run as fast as you can!”
SM: I don’t agree. I was happy when the book finally gets around to the Second World War – the period after that is what Ms. Friedan is writing about.
Women had been lonely a long time because the men had been away. Men had been to war and survived this horrific experience and they had to put the past behind them. The ideal was the man as prosperous hero: He’s working, he’s supporting the family – and the woman is there making sure it all works; she’s taking her pleasure and her status from him.
Now, this is a false, false model, but I think what Ms. Friedan says is that both men and women were afraid to face the reality of what they’d been through. And that women allowed themselves to buy into the constructs of the time, which was set up to reward and honour men.
Focus:There were certainly no alternatives presented to women.
ER: It’s astonishing when you look at the time: Women couldn’t sit on juries in some states, there was no concept of sexual assault within marriage, women couldn’t take out loans. There was just this amazing restriction on what we consider now to be basic, fundamental freedoms.