Like many women of my generation, I had two mothers. One was the bio-mom who taught me to clean, sew a straight seam and bake a credible lemon meringue pie. The other was Betty Friedan, who came along a little later to confirm my sullen conviction that these were not the skills I most aspired to exercise. Neither of these women, it must be said, was very good at the mothering role. Victims of the feminine mystique like my mother were, as Friedan pointed out, too frustrated and vacant - or in Mother's case, too furious - to be loving mentors and role models for their children. As for Friedan herself, she quickly evolved, within the feminist movement, from inspiring leader into collective bitch-mother from hell. No sooner had we, her ideological daughters, come of age than she turned on us as lesbian-loving "man-haters" who were "destroying the movement." And no sooner had we absorbed those slaps than she announced, in her 1982 book, The Second Stage, that it was time for the movement to mellow out and make peace with the guys.
So it's hard to reread The Feminine Mystique, recently reissued in honor of its 35th anniversary, without having some "issues," as we say in the modern family. On the one hand, it's a brilliant piece of journalism. Friedan interviewed dozens of college-educated homemakers and found them popping tranquilizers, nipping at the bottle or just sleepwalking around in their split-level seraglios - a condition she traced to the now infamous "feminine mystique" propagated by advertisers, psychiatrists and women's magazines. Enriched with smidgens of history and intellectually middleweight reflections (Friedan had given up graduate school in psychology out of reluctance to compete with men, but remained a serious reader), The Feminine Mystique is still a rewarding read - even the second or third time around. And as much as I wish I could say that the book is chiefly of interest today as an archaeological relic, I know far too many bright women who, in just the last few years, have married, abandoned their surnames and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of the perfect risotto. So long as we have Martha Stewart - and Promise Keepers and Pat Robertson and the Independent Women's Forum - The Feminine Mystique will be as fresh and spunky as the day it first emerged from the printers.
On the other hand, most of the criticisms radicals leveled at The Feminine Mystique in the '60s weigh even more heavily today. For a book that helped put gender in the national vocabulary, it is blandly oblivious of every other form of human diversity. It's not just about white, educated, upper-middle-class women, it is written from a world that seems to have contained nothing but white, educated, upper-middle-class women. The existence of "Negroes," as African-Americans were then known, is never acknowledged, although Friedan wrote at the zenith of the civil rights movement. In one of her few nods to the less comfortable classes, Friedan muses that the feminine mystique "may not even be felt by women preoccupied with desperate problems of hunger, poverty or illness." So why leave it at "may"? Why not invest a little investigative energy in finding out whether the feminine mystique was really a mass epidemic or just a peculiarity of the 20 percent of the population at the top of the income-distribution chart? In Friedan's introduction to this anniversary volume, she seems at pains to correct her prior provincialism, making numerous references to economic injustice as it affects both sexes and various races. But this new introduction is so garbled as to be largely incomprehensible, as in:
[Sexual politics] also masks the real threats now to women's empowerment and men's - the culture of corporate greed, the downsizing of jobs hitting even college-educated white males, with a nearly 20 percent loss of income in the last five years, to say nothing of minority, blue-collar, and those with less education.
Say what? If there is a message here, it must be that Norton has replaced its usual editors with high school dropouts working at the minimum wage.
The Friedan of 1963 can perhaps be forgiven for slighting race and class - as most members of her race and class habitually did - but even her take on gender was weirdly truncated. There are women in The Feminine Mystique, but not really any men; more accurately, men are the environment, the norm, the human standard to which women weren't measuring up. The bad guys who appear from time to time - the motivation researchers and women's-magazine editors who conspired to transform women into a race of docile housewives and shoppers - are only incidentally guys. If men in general had any stake in the subjugation of women, it is not revealed; in fact Friedan assumed that husbands would be positively relieved to get their annoyingly infantile wives out of the house. Referring to the contemporary myth that coronary heart disease was a side effect of the male breadwinner role, she wrote:
Perhaps men may live longer in America when women carry more of the burden of the battle with the world, instead of being a burden themselves. I think their wasted energy will continue to be destructive to their husbands, to their children, and to themselves until it is used in their own battle with the world.
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