Talking Back to Mom

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.

What the radical young feminists of the '60s pointed out was that, though men might feel bored and burdened by their mystique-mired wives, they never had to wash their own socks. And for this insight - along with our discoveries of sexual violence, of the clitoral orgasm and of lesbianism as a viable "alternative" - we got hammered by Friedan as victims of "pseudo-radical infantilism."

But it is time - long past time, some might say - to put the old generational factions behind us and look at The Feminine Mystique as Friedan herself might want us to evaluate it: not only as a manifesto of a particular group - women - but as a more general contribution to human liberation. By 1963, Friedan was far from the only gender rebel on the scene. There was Simone de Beauvoir, for example (whom, it should be noted, Friedan was less than gracious in acknowledging - thanking her in the original introduction for her "insights into French women" and then carping, a few pages later, that American critics had blown off The Second Sex with the excuse that it was just "about French women"). Then, coming out just one year before The Feminine Mystique, there was Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl, which argued breezily that housewives were worse than bored - they were, with their haggard looks and persistent scent of baby spit-up, unsexy as well.

On the male side of the gender rebellion, Hugh Hefner's Playboy was railing against marriage as a "trap" and wives as "parasites," while the Beats just ambled off on their own, fucking whomever they pleased, regardless of gender or marital status. What was unique about Friedan was that she alone attempted to provide a "scientific" rationale for breaking gender rules - a moral and intellectual framework that would make sense to your average liberal, educated American.

At the time Friedan was working on The Feminine Mystique, her chosen and then rejected field - psychology - was headed for a crackup and schizoid breakdown. Freud had been ascendant in the '40s and well into the '50s, and his message was an essentially tragic one: Individual human desires are not necessarily consistent with the maintenance of an orderly "civilization," so the desires have to go (sublimated into something acceptable or evaporated off in endless psychoanalytic talk sessions). In the drugstore version of Freud purveyed in high school "life adjustment" classes, our (American) civilization was just about perfect. You just had to grow up and achieve a "mature adjustment" to it, meaning lemon meringue pies and vaginal orgasms, if any, for the girls, and corporate slavery for the boys. Failure to adjust to one's housewifely duties or white-collar career was a sign of dark sexual disorders - including frigidity in women and "latent homosexuality" in men. In proclaiming, as she often did, that waxing a floor did not provide her with orgasmic satisfaction, Friedan knew she risked being diagnosed as an immature, sex-hating victim of penis envy.

But she was also enough of a psychologist to know that help was on the way. In the '50s, a cluster of existentially- and gestalt-oriented psychologists, including, most notably, Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, was beginning to offer a subversively anti-Freudian view of the human condition, in which the goal was not to "grow up" but simply to grow. The "human potential" - for growth, creativity and achievement - was boundless, they announced, and could not be corked up and confined in our socially approved "roles." This was, as Friedan was the first to see, astoundingly good news for women, which is why The Feminine Mystique reads, the third or fourth time around, like Abraham Maslow on estrogen. Freud gets buried in Chapter 5; Maslow and company are enthroned in Chapter 13; and, throughout the book, "growth" is hailed as a "primary human need, as basic as sex." From the perspective of what was soon to be called the "human potential movement," Friedan's unhappy housewife was the only sane one on the block.

Today, of course, sophisticates at both ends of the political spectrum routinely denounce the human potential movement and all its banal pop-psych manifestations as an exercise in narcissism, fatuity and gross self-indulgence. Certainly there was nothing in it to buttress the minimal sense of interpersonal responsibility that might help keep a marriage together or a dad from going deadbeat. In the words of the famous Gestalt Prayer, which could be found, in the '70s, on coffee mugs and needlepoint wall hangings: "I do my thing, and you do your thing . . . and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful. If not, it can't be helped." But Friedan was astute enough to see the revolutionary potential of the new psychology when it was still young enough to have a sparkle of defiance in its eye. "Adjusted to what?" Maslow once demanded of the conventional psychology of the day. "To a bad culture?" This was the resounding new idea that gave The Feminine Mystique its intellectual heft: If there is a misfit between individual human desires and the cultural status quo, it is the status quo that has to go.  

The implications of this radical new world-view, as opposed to the pop-Freudian conservatism that much of mainstream psychology still clings to today, were and remain staggering. Once you accept that growth is our destiny and that our impul-ses are not necessarily naughty or "immature," then everything is up for grabs. Marriage, for example: a nice idea, but how can we possibly expect two people's growth trajectories to intersect for more than a few months or years? Or heterosexuality: If sex roles are an overly confining social construct, why should we accept an equally rigid scripting of our sexual desires? And what about those male careers that Friedan thirsted for? Can a person of either sex expect to achieve his or her full human potential as, say, northeast director of marketing for the Plastics Division? In the '60s and '70s, many of the radical feminists who so irritated Friedan were undertaking a serious search for alternatives: communes instead of families, sexual fluidity instead of heterosexuality, co-ops and subsistence farms instead of gray-flannel corporate conformity. She chided us for neglecting respectable reforms like the ERA, but we were only following through on the liberatory logic that she herself helped let loose on the world.

The sad fact, though, is that if you fail to change the status quo thoroughly enough, then the human "growth imperative" can indeed be cruel and disruptive. In a society that fails to provide for its poor and its young, for example, one person's "growth" can be another person's tragic divorce and descent into poverty. At the beginning of the '80s, when "the feminization of poverty" was beginning to elbow out the feminine mystique as the cutting-edge women's issue, Friedan turned sharply right with The Second Stage - abandoning the old language of unlimited growth and potential for the pallid shibboleths of "family," "responsibility" and "community." Other former psych-radicals followed a similar path from utopian optimism to suburban conformity. Michael Lerner, for example, who had been a dedicated foe of monogamy in the '60s, spent the late '70s trying to persuade the left to "reclaim 'the family'" from the right. Since we hadn't succeeded in making the world safe for people's needs to "grow" and "self-actualize," we were now supposed to emphasize their equally self-centered need to burrow into the sofa and cuddle.

Within the feminist movement, Friedan's long-abused ideological daughters took The Second Stage as a final betrayal. Yet she never had the utopian appetite to match her psychological theories. She had ended The Feminine Mystique with a wimpy appeal to educators to let housewives back into college and toughen the curriculum for coeds: not a word about child care or the need for husbands to master the technology of the vacuum cleaner. In the '60s, she focused on legislation to end workplace discrimination against women - a laudable and necessary goal, of course, but not exactly the stuff of revolution. Far too many of the deep, tense issues of women's lives - from dieting to date rape - lay in a place she would not go.

If all Friedan had written in '63 was that women deserve a few more options and a better break, we could file her away under "bourgeois-liberal feminist - influential in the early phase of the second wave of women's liberation," and be done with it. But she said much more: that human desire - for adventure, for meaning, for creative achievement - is infinite and unquenchable. And that it is our responsibility, as alert members of both sexes, to bring the social arrangements we live under into conformity with our desires. For that bold notion alone, we owe this curmudgeonly old mother figure our eternal thanks, even if she never knew exactly what to do with it herself.  

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >