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.
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 …”
ER: I’m going to generalize here, so slap me if you want – but that’s partly a problem of women being horribly self-critical. At the end of the day, men don’t say, “Oh my god, I did not make the quinoa salad as well as I should. The dressing was terrible and the kids … I only read them three stories instead of four.” They don’t beat themselves up. They have a tremendous capacity for getting on with things.
The voice inside our heads that tells us that we’re not doing everything well – you know, you should put a pillow over that voice and suffocate it.
SN: Yes, but there’s something engineering that self-criticism, that voice. Hillary Clinton is a great model. But she’s also kind of off the curve. All the research says that you’ve got to stay in the job market, even if you have a kid. If you leave, you come back with a far lower salary and you don’t catch up to colleagues who didn’t leave. Life may be long – and it is a good lesson to think, “I don’t have to be all those things right now” – but in terms of sheer financial survival,and having babies before your eggs wither ... the crucial years are short.
SM: There’s a biological imperative for women, no doubt. And Anne-Marie Slaughter, when she was trying to do it all in Washington and was having that hugely high-powered job, her husband was doing a lot of the childcare.
That is a huge difference from Ms. Friedan’s day. The young men I see, including my own son, they’re just more involved in childcare, in everything. They’re also stepping back from their careers in lots of cases.
It is incredibly hard when you have small children. When I had small children, I promised myself that I was going to be available to my kids when they had families of their own, and yet here I am – I have two little granddaughters who are not quite 2, and I do help, but I’m working. So should I be giving up my job so I can do that?
ER: You’re a grandmother and you’re beating yourself up about this. The change in 50 years is incredible, though – from feeling like your life might have lacked meaning to now, sort of, could I have a tiny bit less meaning, please, for a day? Thank you.
Focus: Some things are scarily the same, though. Ms. Friedan's critique of the "cult of the child" – unfulfilled moms over-investing in their kids, and naturally ruining them in the process. Helicopter parenting circa 1963?
SN: That made me laugh. Just like all the articles today on how we’re screwing up our kids.
SM: She interviews all of these women who have more and more children because it gives them something to do; it’s almost as though each new child is a new beginning. What’s happening, I think, with a lot of helicopter parents, is that there are fewer children, and so there’s more pressure to make each one of them the best you can do.
ER: Let’s go back to Hillary Clinton, because I think we’re all fascinated with her. Especially when she was the First Lady and was so demonized for being “unfeminine,” hard-charging.
People really did not like her, to the point where during one presidential campaign her advisors made her do a recipe-off pitting her chocolate-chip cookies against Barbara Bush’s. Or, god, that book, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets.
SM: You remember when she was Hillary Rodham Clinton? She dropped that name, and started to wear hair bands. … I mean, it’s a long, long evolution.
ER: Say what you will about Susan Rice, but when she was being considered for the post of Secretary of State there were a lot of stories going around about how she was too abrasive for the post. She had no supporters within Washington because she was, once again, too ambitious, not a team player – all these words that are still so negative when they’re used in connection with a woman in her career.
And there’s still a larger issue: One of the big problems facing young women is economic. Look at the paper’s Board Games series and see how few women – I think it was 10 per cent in 2011 – sit on the boards of major companies in Canada.
And how difficult it is just to ask for a raise. There was just this study saying the best way to get one if you’re a woman is to be apologetic, self-deprecating, sort of stumbling into it through traditionally feminine behaviour. Which I find just so disheartening.
God, and we’re just talking about middle-class women like us.
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!
SM: Solving the problems in The Feminine Mystique has inevitably led to other ones. I also think there are pressures we face at certain stages of life. I mean, can I put off having babies – that’s another thing she doesn’t really talk about, contraception or abortion – but then there’s “Oh, my god, I haven’t found somebody! Should I just get married to have children?”
With guys, it’s the ultimate biological advantage. They can go on forever, and that is something that really puts pressure on women and probably always will.
SN: I was really aware that, even though Ms. Friedan doesn’t talk about it overtly, birth control is what makes this whole “feminine mystique” possible. Women were no longer churning out 12 children on the farm or in-between shifts at the factory.
Focus: So what battles are left?
ER: We now have, is it six out of 12 premiers who are women? Which is fantastic, but women are still under-represented in a lot of governments around the world, and certainly here. And young women’s access to good information about sexual health is still a huge thing.
SN: There are now fewer and fewer doctors in Canadian medical schools taught how to perform abortions. There is less and less abortion access in Canada. That fight is not over.
And when I lived in South Africa, I was often aware that, in many ways, the country was more advanced in terms of gender equality: it had women in top leadership roles in government, prominent women in business, women heading universities, and incredibly progressive legislation mandating equality for women in all these fields.
South Africa also has a horrific sexual-violence problem, so it’s not a straightforward comparison. But on so many indicators – length of maternity leave, pay equity, women in politics, abortion access – it certainly outstrips the U.S., if not Canada. Rwanda has more women in its parliament and its government than we do.
SM: South Africa enacted a new constitution and put in place many progressive policies – but that didn't wipe out racism and misogyny. Gender-equity policies are essential, but so is a change in behaviour and attitudes.
ER: What do you want for your own daughter, Stephanie?
SN: What I want is for her to not feel that she does everything not as well as she would like to because there is a tremendous amount of pressure on her.
I mean, I didn’t go to university thinking, “I’m going to find a husband.” I was thinking about how I was going to get the best job and how I was going to be really good at that job.
And those are good goals to have. But somewhere along the way I also wanted to find a partner and have babies. So then it’s, “I am seven months pregnant and I have to go to this war!” And, “I’m in labour but I have to deliver this book manuscript!”
They’re all things that I wanted to do and I’m so aware, given where I live and what I see in my job, so profoundly aware, of how lucky I am and how many incredible privileges and opportunities I have. But it’s also really hard, trying to do all these things well. I don’t want her to feel that. And I don’t know how to make a world where that will be true.
SM: Well, if she doesn’t push, she won’t achieve. And the women in Ms. Friedan’s book don’t have those ambitions – they didn’t think it was possible. So we can’t predict what your daughter will want, but I think that you really want your daughters to strive and to feel that they can accomplish something.
ER: Is that what you wanted for your daughter when she was young, Sandra?
SM: Well, I came from a family of women, so when I had a son I was astounded – it was an eye-opener and a joy. But when my daughter was born, I recognized her. She didn’t look at all like me, but I recognized her immediately as one of me.
And what I wanted for her was, yes, for sure, to strive, to achieve. But I also realized she is who she, and that’s who she should be able to be.
ER: Yes, I think that’s the message I would want to give my daughter, too: The world is totally open to you, but don’t feel that you have to be everything to everyone at every time. You only have to be content in your own self.
This discussion has been edited and condensed.
Our panel includes India bureau chief Stephanie Nolen, feature writer Sandra Martin and columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.