“The Feminine Mystique”– Then and Now, Part 2

1

Dear Letha,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what your world was like when you first held The Feminine Mystique in your hands. You are right that it can be hard for me to understand the kind of blatant sexism my mother and grandmothers experienced. The gender discrimination today can seem so much subtler than what you described, but I sometimes wonder if it is not really subtle at all—we are just socialized in our respective generation not to see how sexism is playing out in our daily lives.

I think one of the ways I have experienced that socialization, as I mentioned earlier in a letter to you, is by experiencing a vague and ingrained suspicion of 2nd wave feminists—those very women who have done so much for the women of my generation. I was surprised when I picked up Friedan and started feeling an odd resistance before I even read the first word of her book. I didn’t know why I felt that way. I knew I had heard feminism shamed from the pulpit, but I don’t think I was aware of the extent to which I had seen feminism shamed in the secular media, too, and how much I had internalized such negative messaging. As Friedan herself says in an afterword to the book, it’s the sensational, bra-burning, man-hating, anti-motherhood kind of feminists that the media has so often liked to give attention to. My good friend Jeremy once said to me, “I have heard so much about that radical man-hating angry feminist. I just have yet to meet her.” I think he is right: she doesn’t exist nearly as much as she is talked about.

I let down my guard with Friedan when she began to explain she was not anti-family at all, but rather she was advocating for the maturity and development of the individual within that family unit. What I soon realized is this is not a book about marginalizing one’s desire to be a mother or a wife. Rather, this book is about developing a fuller, more mature identity and bringing the essence of that identity into the life of one’s relationships. So often, especially in Christian cultures, a woman is still socially conditioned to have her sense of identity come from being someone’s girlfriend, wife, mother, or daughter. This book reminded me that a priori to being in any of those roles, you are—and must be—yourself. I wonder what happens to women when we think we are our roles before we know how to be our selves. What does that do to the quality of our intimate relationships?

I remember a time in my early 20’s when I did not know how to own a sense of myself outside of a relationship with a man. I ended up experiencing a deep sense of rejection by someone I loved deeply, but looking back on all that heartache, I can see that part of the pain was because this man’s opinion of me had become my world. I remember my mother saying to me: “Kimberly, out of the 6 billion people in the world, why is he the one who gets to determine your worth?” She had a point. But, at the time, it was so difficult for me to extricate myself from the belief that a man’s desire and approval of me somehow made me lovable. If he did not want me, surely that was a reflection of my worth. The core of my identity felt shaken. I had to rebuild, reclaim, re-find, revive (all those “re” words) my sense of self. I had to resurrect me. I think Friedan is talking about all those “re” words: she is encouraging women to return to themselves, in all the aspects of who they are. Young women today still need this encouragement to live into their own identity.

What I kept seeing over and over as I read Friedan is that she was calling women to accept responsibility for themselves. Apart from a gendered role. Apart from the security of being someone else’s wife or mother or fill in the blank. She realized that relationships would be healthy and authentic when individuals were not forcing themselves into contrived roles. And based on her research, Friedan believed that woman were being cut off from developing their full identity inasmuch as they felt they could not pursue meaningful work outside their homes. (She does not, however, do a good job addressing the privilege of getting to choose the particular career and education one wants. Many women work foremost out of economic necessity, and not to achieve a dreamt for career. I wish she had given more words to that reality.)

Still, I found myself resonating with Friedan’s analysis, because the connection between identity and calling has become so important to me in my late twenties. I now see that a key part of my own identity development has been pursuing wholeheartedly the kind of work I was created to do. I am taking risks on a writing career, which requires me to wrestle with my own self-development in significant ways. I admit, it sometimes seems easier not to have to go through all this growth: there is still a little girl inside of me filled with Hollywood movies who wouldn’t mind if Prince Charming swept me off my feet, gave me my sense of identity, and paid my rent, too! Living into my calling and growing into myself has not been easy.

I do think that it is important to note here that calling looks quite different for each individual. I know some women who are truly thrilled to be home with their kids full-time. It is a luxury and a privilege and something they have always wanted. But women, just like men, need to be able to make that choice for themselves and consider multiple ways to co-parent and care well for their children. It is important for women to know there is not one way, so as much as possible (and as much as economics allows), they can feel freedom to make decisions based on who they are and not based on what the “feminine mystique” says about what it means to be a woman. I worry that some branches of feminism today are now subtly making women feel guilty who do not want to work outside the home. And thus we end up in the same bind— a pressure to be someone else’s version of oneself.

Yet, for many of the women Friedan interviewed (and granted, they were an economically privileged segment of society), much of their frustration was connected to the pressure to stay at home full-time. I was particularly interested when Friedan started talking about mothers who were living vicariously through their children, because I remembered a quote by Jung that says, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” Encouraging women to live into all the aspects of their identity is actually a very pro-family stance, because children will benefit when mothers have interests and dreams outside of them. (Of course, like most things in life, parenting is a balancing act. I know that on the other end of the spectrum, children can be neglected when parents are addicted to their work and don’t prioritize their families.)

While the pendulum can swing in the opposite direction, where women feel pressure to put work over family, or are somehow made to feel guilty for wanting to stay home with their children, in Christian circles I think the opposite pressure is still there: Christian women are often given subtle and overt messages that they are the more relational sex, and ought to be “helpers” and nurturers, and men are society’s “doers.” For instance, I believe I heard a version of this message in my Christian graduate program. In one of my classes on marriage and family therapy, we learned that a women’s curse from Genesis 3 is feeling “loneliness” while a man’s curse is feeling “futility” in his work. Because of a woman’s intrinsic loneliness, she often feels like she is “too much” in relationships. She is “needy,” she is parasitic; she is hating her own loneliness and trying to escape her curse through relationship with a man. Meanwhile, the man is trying to escape his curse of futility (the ground that produces thorns) by wanting a woman to save and comfort him.

I think my professor’s theory is another subtle way of saying women are more relational and men are the “doers.” And while I agree with my professor that there is some evidence to support his observations, he makes a common misstep: as a psychologist, he forgets to look through a sociological lens, too. He does not acknowledge the impact of social conditioning by patriarchal systems that still work against both women and men fully developing all aspects of themselves. If a woman is programmed to find her identity in her relationships and downplay other parts of her self-development, it makes sense she would struggle with a deeper sense of loneliness. Relationships would likely feel emptier if she has not developed her own identity outside of them. At the same time, if a man is trained to find his identity in his vocational success, while his emotional and relational needs are marginalized, it follows that his idolization of work would lead to a nagging lack of fulfillment. Both work and relationships become their own “empty cisterns” if they are not held in balance.

It seems to me my professor was parsing out essential “male” and “female” experiences, instead of being more curious about how those experiences were being socially constructed, too. So, often I wanted to raise my hand in class and shout in exasperation, “Every day I battle the fears that my work as a writer is futile. I struggle with those feelings every bit as much as a man. Satisfaction in work is just as much a real issue for me as fulfillment in relationships.” And I have to think there was a man in the room who wanted to shout, “I feel lonely too, and I would like more permission to feel that way. I would like it to be acknowledged that I have just as many relational needs as a woman, even if they might be different.”

Friedan’s work was helpful to me because it helped me see that men and women share very human needs: a need for intimacy in relationships and a need for the space to develop one’s own calling and selfhood. I look forward to the day when young women and men are given the messages to affirm the interplay of both aspects of themselves.

SHARE
Kimberly George
Kimberly B. George directs Critical Social Theory Consulting, an innovative business that brings specialized academic theory on power, privilege, and social justice (including the tools of feminist, critical race, and queer theory) into spaces such theory is not traditionally taught. Kimberly holds an MA (summa cum laude) from Yale University, where she was a Merit Scholar from 2009–2011, and a Postgraduate Associate in Gender Equity and Policy from 2012–2013. She’s currently a doctoral student, where her scholarship focuses on structural violence, psychic life, and creative pedagogies. Kimberly is also a writing consultant, supporting both creative and academic writers. Her own writing has appeared in such publications at The Feminist Wire, NewBlackMan (in Exile),The New Haven Register, The Washington Spectator, Feministing.com, and The OpEd Project’s ByLine Blog.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for describing your resistance to Friedan and your suspicion of these older feminists. Being one of them, it’s hard for me to understand why younger women have this initial reaction.

    Your following interaction with Friedan’s ideas as you read The Feminine Mystique are also interesting.

    I remember meeting her at a Los Angeles gathering in 1991 to celebrate 25 years of the National Organization for Women. I was so happy to speak with her and get her autograph! She had such standing as a foremother in the women’s movement–I knew I was meeting living history. (She died in 2006.)

    Anne Eggebroten

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here