When I first began reading “The Feminine Mystique” I was invited to attend a symposium celebrating 50 years since this seminal feminist work was published. After attending the conference, I bristled at the harsh critique of Friedan. Many of the panelist took her to task for looking at housewives during the 1960s through a white, affluent, educated, heterosexist lens. At this point, I had read three chapters and did not agree with their assessments. Now, after ending the book, I couldn’t agree more.
According to Friedan: “The most glaring proof that, no matter how elaborate, Occupation: housewife is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin, arose from the comedy of ‘togetherness’ ” (248).
Reading “The Feminine Mystique” constantly brought up the same questions: Who is discounting the work of housewives: women, men or society at large? And if women were paid a fair wage for their housework would that make a difference in how it’s viewed? I could never tell whether the women Friedan wrote about were truly bored with their lives as housewives or simply felt unappreciated and their work undervalued in a commodity based society. Friedan offered a lot of surveys and studies to back up her claims, plus anecdotal accounts from these women. Still, the question remained who assigned value to these women’s roles in society.
Friedan advocated for women to pursue careers outside of the home in order to save themselves from being a dreaded housewife. This proclamation probably sounded revolutionary back then, but 50 years later, we now see how careers can often complicate, not simplify, the lives of wives with children. Friedan never provided solutions for how husbands could share in the domestic burdens of their wives. Instead, women were encouraged to leave the housework behind and go out and become individuals, via their careers, like men! As if doing activities labeled “masculine” are the sole means for which people can become individuals and realize their potential. Except what happens to the housework and children in the process? Should women avoid getting married and having children and simply pursue their careers first? What role does the man play when the woman goes to work? Friedan introduced the problem but didn’t give many nuanced solutions.
Throughout the text, what remained clear was how white, middle-class, educated women felt pressured to forgo post-graduate degrees or their careers and focus on obtaining financial stability and social prestige by becoming housewives. This pressure is at the heart of what Friedan dubs “The Feminine Mystique.” Women playing roles that were assigned to them rather than pursuing the roles that they wanted based on their talents, intelligence and interests.
Friedan periodically points out that her book is based on some women’s experiences in American society. She pointed out how race, class and education influenced whether or not women could choose the role of housewife or laborer during this time period.
Still, as a woman of color, it’s hard for me to feel sympathy for a group of white, upwardly mobile women who were bored and/or treated dismissively as a result of their decision to become housewives. Friedan consistently argued that being a housewife was not good enough for these women. “Surely there are many women in America who are happy at the moment as housewives, and some whose abilities are fully used in the housewife role. But happiness is not the same thing as the aliveness of being fully used. Nor is human intelligence, human ability, a static thing. Housework, no matter how it is expanded to fill the time available, can hardly use the abilities of a woman of average or normal human intelligence, much less the fifty per cent of the female population whose intelligence in childhood, was above average” (255). In other words, being a housewife is beneath the intelligent, dynamic (white) women in Friedan’s book. Which is why even though Friedan mentions women of color and women of different classes, it is clear that her goal is not to enlighten us about the mediocrity of housework, but empower those highly intelligent, upwardly mobile white women who have given up their passions to become housewives. To them she offers encouragement: strive to do more! Why? Because these women are worthy of a rich and fulfilling life.
The feminine mystique caused all sorts of problems. Not only were women bored and unappreciated but their role as housewives left them alone for most of the day. As a result, these women became “sex-seekers.” Friedan described sex-seekers as suburban housewives with insatiable sexual appetites that only the most perverse and constant sexual acts could satisfy. The feminine mystique, according to Friedan, glorified and perpetuated femininity (a passive and immature state) to the point that mothers passed on these passive and immature traits to their daughters as well as their sons. As a result, the sons became homosexuals! They participated in this immature sexual act for the same reasons the sex-seeking women become promiscuous: in a search of reassurance through sexual connection (275).
This book, while groundbreaking, offered a narrow view of feminism and the role of women in American society. Friedan assigned too much power to the impact being a suburban housewife had on women, their value in society, their relationships with men, and the sexuality of men and women. Friedan provided a lot of simple truths, but often times overstated her case.