SN: Yes, we’re privileged white women talking about the ultimate book about privileged white women...
Re-reading the book, she’s really writing about a North American problem, with a vague mention of Europe. What about the other three billion women on the planet? The anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, which came out a bit later, in 1970, is about how the same forces oppressing American women are at work elsewhere in the world. I found that a much more relevant book.
ER: Everything I learned about feminism, I learned, I swear to god, from Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, which I probably read when I was maybe 15 or 16. It just blew the doors open on my mind. It’s kind of dated now, but Morag’s amazing in her sexual journey, her personal journey, her quest for understanding with her family.
SM: So often novels can get to the real crux of the issue. Look at Pride and Prejudice. Here is this gentry family with five daughters, and if they don’t marry them off well, they’re going to lose their house because they have no sons. I mean, isn’t that the ultimate feminist tale?
SN: Or what’s going on in the house next door to me in Delhi. Ms. Friedan’s chapter, “The Sexual Sell,” about the very deliberate effort by advertising, which seems like shorthand for the capitalist machine, to make sure housewives consume, consume, consume – that’s also India right now. You have these women entering the work force, and this tumultuous upheaval going on.
The new consumer is what’s going to save the economy and save the country and make it into a superpower – and, like everywhere else, it’s women who make the majority of these purchasing decisions.
But how do we sell things to these women? Do we want to make them feel modern and Western, or appeal to their Indian-ness and their traditional roles, or can we put both of those things in an ad somehow?
SM: And women are selling it to ourselves. We’re not smothering the voice in the pillow.
Focus: And do we think feminism is still an “F-word”? What do young women make of being feminists?
ER: I think there is a large group of very savvy young women who totally embrace it, and then there are other young women who think the concept, falsely in my personal view, is not relevant to them any more.
That’s why this book is so important. You can say to women who might think feminism is dead: Look at how bad things were, even recently. It’s important to look back and see how far we’ve come, so that we don’t take things for granted.
SN: True. But the book is definitely not the cry for revolution that you would think would speak to the degree of suppression, oppression and pain Ms. Friedan had seen among women.
Focus: Sexual suppression and oppression and pain, too.
SM: Oh, the Freud in the book ...
Focus: There’s also this serious Fifty Shades of Grey thing going on: women who just want … sex.
SN: She does make the suburbs sound more interesting than I remember.
ER: Desperate Housewives. …
SM: Mad Men.
ER: I think it’s in the first season that Betty is on a psychiatrist’s couch – and then she leaves and the psychiatrist calls her husband, Don, and tells him what his wife said. I remember being shocked by that. But then you read Ms. Friedan and you think, yes, that probably did happen.
SN: It’s staggering. Is there a single woman in The Feminine Mystique who’s not in analysis and/or on tranquilizers?
SM: And if they’re not in analysis or on tranquilizers or drinking or having flings, they’re having yet more babies.
ER: Anything to soak up the pain. … I’m going to sound like a Puritan, but speaking of sex, one of the problems facing women now is that they live in a culture that is so saturated not just with sexual imagery but also easy access to hard-core pornography. When I was growing up, boys had maybe seen their dad’s Hustler magazine once they stole it from his drawer …
SN: Probably Playboy.
ER: Maybe. But boys did not expect extreme sports when you went on a date. And now I worry a little bit about young women – that a lot is expected of them that maybe they’re not ready for.
I also think Stephanie’s right to home in on “the sexual sell” and Ms. Friedan’s discussion of female sexuality as a commodity. That hasn’t changed much, if at all. Now, it’s not just young women who feel the need to conform to a particular stereotype of beauty and youth, but women at all ages. You can’t even grow old in peace anymore. Banish those wrinkles, ladies!