SN: And yet there’s no discussion in The Feminine Mystique about how to tackle any of this through a political process. The idea that there is a larger force at work against women is there, but I don’t think she ever actually uses the word “patriarchy.”
ER: Yeah, someone like Germaine Greer would have wanted to kick the entire patriarchal wagon over – Ms. Friedan just wanted the wagon to go in a different direction.
SM: I think she’s writing from her own experience. And what happened to her, after this book, is that she herself got politicized. This book was her first, not her final step.
Actually, one of the interesting things I discovered about The Feminine Mystique is that it was published in the middle of a printers’ strike – so there were no reviews, it didn’t grab attention. It was when it came out in paperback that it started being widely read and discussed and debated.
ER: You’re getting at something really interesting: the reaction.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian, interviewed a whole bunch of women who were affected by The Feminine Mystique for her book, A Strange Stirring. What she heard was astonishing: very high-level academics, lawyers, judges, saying things like, “I was married with small children. I felt my life was over. Then I read this book and I decided there was another path for me and I went back to school.”
One woman has this fantastic way of describing her reading experience: She says it’s like talking to a doctor who, for the first, time, is able to identify the source of your pain, and makes you feel less alone for feeling it.
Focus: How could a woman be inspired by this book to go back to school? They’re shown as either painfully over-educated for housewifery or at university to earn an M.R.S.
SN: One of the things that I found powerful, re-reading the book, is how close Ms. Friedan feels to the first wave of feminism – how real the suffragettes are for her. They were the ones who got these women’s colleges going, made it possible for a huge movement of women to get higher education generally.
But all Ms. Friedan sees when she visits schools is this sort of zombie campus – women dropping out of microbiology to take home economics and try to find a husband. What did they put in the water to anesthetize all these smart young American women to kill off any desire to have their minds expand?
ER: She does a good job talking about how women’s magazines and ads manipulated women.
SM: And women’s magazines were so influential. One big exception then was Chatelaine in Canada, under Doris Anderson – it covered spousal abuse and abortion, and in fact published an excerpt of this book in 1963.
She also talks about the fact that women bought into these ideas – it was easier, or so it seemed. I think women still find it extremely difficult to figure out how to be mothers and work. Look at Anne-Marie Slaughter. She was Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department and still wrote about not being able to “have it all.”
The thing about women that I find both a blessing and a curse is that we have the ability to reinvent ourselves. So we want to be a mother and stay at home. Then we want to be at work and be career women. What I think Ms. Friedan is suggesting is that you can have a wide and satisfying life – but you have to do certain things in moderation and you probably can’t have it all at once.
Life is long. I mean, look at Hillary Clinton: What is she going to do after being Secretary of State? She has a kid; the kid’s okay. She’s probably going to be a grandmother. But will she stop working?
SN: Yeah, I think reading it this time I was struck by the question, “Is this all there is?” I feel like, for my friends and I, it’s more like, “Oh my god, there’s all this!” Because we have jobs that we’re incredibly committed to, and we have families that we’re incredibly committed to. And it’s really freaking hard.
The chorus among all the women I know is, “I don’t do anything well. I don’t do my job as well as I did before I had children. I don’t give my children what I wish I was giving them. I don’t give to my parents and my friends. I don’t give to my community as a volunteer …”