Monday, September 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #46: The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

It's interesting to read The Definitive Texts of political and social movements that have either decayed or evolved since the time said texts were written. Usually, you find a strange mix of unrelatability and startling current fact, and that is the case here. Feminism has become controversial again simply as a result of its divisions - people feel a need to define what kind of feminist they are as a result of some more extreme permutations. Sarah Bunting has a terrific article about feminism called "Yes, You Are" which reminds us that feminism isn't about bra-burning or wearing lots of flannel or being humorless or any thing else besides believing in "the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes." It's exactly that simple, but the journey towards anything approaching a majority embrace of the idea has been a long and complicated one.

The Feminine Mystique explores the idea that women are forced by society into an unfulfilling existence wherein their worth is contingent solely on marriage and child-bearing. It is the new feminism - less clear than the lack of suffrage, less obvious than forced prostitution, less dramatic than the assembly of harems - but is equally important. When TFM was published, women had political rights but still were often subject to oppression of their souls. Friedan runs through a variety of doctrines that she thinks have contributed to the Mystique, and her points follow logically. I found it somewhat difficult to evaluate these arguments from a modern day standpoint, because the landscape has changed so dramatically for women since groundbreaking writers like Friedan were revolutionary. Do Freudian interpretations of the psyche still shape our gender attitudes? Maybe. If nothing else, I think the effect is significantly

Whether or not the specifics of Friedan's work are still actively applicable, many of the phenomena that she describes still exist. I think the Mystique has mutated rather than vanished. Many women still feel pressure to be that perfect housewife, but many others feel pressure to be a full-time career woman as well. The real problem seems to be the call for women to decide and declare themselves early on in life. (This is not to say that men get off the hook - in fact, men have even fewer options, as it's generally assumed that they will work and be primary breadwinners.) There is a very serious question to be answered in regard to whether a person can be an active, engaged parent AND a serious businessperson, but that women are routinely pressed to declare themselves as one or the other without dedicated public discourse on the matter is supremely unfair. That happiness rarely factors into this forced decision is even more tragic...both genders should have joy in their lives, and the current expectations from society - whatever their cause - limits this possibility.

The Feminine Mystique is a fascinating read and is worth a look for anyone interested in gender dynamics or social structure. I will warn you that the prose is excellent but not necessarily light, so be prepared to read actively and be able to dedicate some serious concentration to it.

384 pages

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