Thanks so much for your last post on Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, in which you helpfully outlined the historical realities that many women were facing during the time of the book’s publishing. You are so right—it is always important to understand the intended original audience in order to understand the importance of a book in a given moment. Thanks to you—and to others who wrote in both on this blog and the EEWC community list—for sharing your liberating experiences reading Friedan for the first time. It is important for younger feminists like myself to understand the historical reception of this book from the perspectives of those who first read it.
Given how much the book meant to so many of you, I felt you were very gracious to acknowledge the reasons I have some understandable hesitations with the book. As we have previously talked about, The Feminine Mystique has been a critical book in my own feminist development for more than one reason. When I first read it, it helped catalyze for me a more rigorous study of 2nd wave feminism. Friedan helped me own the word “feminist,” and helped me understand the importance of exercising one’s talents and dreams — not just as a woman, but as a human being. In many ways, she plunged me into a deeper feminist journey.
And then the book held a second equally important lesson for me when I returned to it several years later, after having read a larger breadth of feminist materials (including texts written by Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Kimberle Crenshaw). It was at this point in my intellectual journey, that I realized how much my own feminism had been insidiously infused with an outlook that still privileged the white, middle-class woman as the “universal” woman.
I think perhaps more than anything else my last post was trying to nuance the complexity of my personal continuing journey. I know that you and I have always talked extensively about the importance of intersectional feminist analysis. And I distinctly remember that in the very first issue of Christian Feminism Today that I ever read (you had so kindly sent me a stack of the magazines in the mail), there was a brilliant article by Virginia Mollenkott that really aided me in seeing the interconnections between systems of power. That article by Virginia (and I am sad to say that I don’t remember the number of the issue in which I found it), served as another turning point for me. She just put such good words to what holistic social justice work looks like. Something in me exhaled a very deep “yes.” I was growing in my ability to see how gender oppression is always interconnected to all other forms of oppression.
All that said, you know that my journey as a feminist for the past few years has been deeply influenced by my desire to understand intersectionality more fully. Thus, my comments on my last post were guided by that desire to keep pressing into how my own white privilege has harmed my understandings of how feminism is a movement for allwomen, not just racially or economically privileged women.
At the same time, I think your extensive positioning of Friedan’s work within a historical moment and specific audience adds a great deal to my understanding of how and why Friedan was able to accomplish as much as she did.
While you covered many excellent points in your last post, I just will take up a few specific ones below to dialogue with.
The Marketing of Desire
First, you had written:
Kim, I know you think that Betty Friedan wasn’t aware of her class privilege, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. When you spoke of her addressing women whose lives were filled with “matching slipcovers, cooking gourmet snails, and building swimming pools,” it came across as though you thought that’s what the women themselves desired for their lives. They could then be so easily caricatured as spoiled, ungrateful, bored and restless women who didn’t appreciate what they had, when so many other women had so little.
Letha, I think that you are making an important point about the marketing of desire itself and the construction of various representations of femininities. You helpfully nuance that women were being told to desire these things, and the real issue was that they had many deeper desires for self-development and expression that were unacknowledged! These status symbols that Friedan references (“matching slipcovers,” “swimming pools,” etc.) were, of course, marketed to women who had the money to buy them, and like most of marketing today, the advertisements for these products probably promised satisfaction, while at the same time urging them to want even greater “satisfaction” through buying even more things. But as Friedan so well explains, fulfillment remained elusive for these targeted female consumers if they were cut-off from a life in which they were given permission—dare we say even support—for developing all the fullness of who they were as persons.
With my criticism of these status symbols, I didn’t actually mean to imply that these women were ungrateful or bored. My critique—which perhaps I didn’t nuance very well in my last post—was that Friedan’s writing is encoded with a specific subject position. By “encoded” I mean that she has a certain audience in mind, namely white-middle-class women. There is, of course, nothing inherently problematic in wanting to address a specific audience. The problem is that when she uses the term “women,” while actually speaking about the concerns of a very specific group of women, I fear she renders invisible the realities women face who don’t have her privilege based on race and class. But as you said, Friedan knew her audience well and is probably intentionally speaking to a certain audience and not to others.
I just continue to struggle with how much of white feminism has this rhetorical pattern—using “women” to erase the very real distinctions among women. It’s a subtle, yet really problematic and pervasive way, that white feminists like myself perpetuate racism. Honestly, my own language in the past, and still even in the present, continues at times to collapse the highly diverse category of “women” into a monolithic representation, which then erases the matrix of power systems that infuse any expression of gender. My critique of Friedan is actually a critique of myself! I catch myself quite frequently using “women” as a monolithic category, with a subtly implied universal “woman” that is really a woman who looks like myself—white, American, and middle-class.
It is this problem I was addressing in the book–since it is this problem I am actually pretty concerned with in my own development as a writer, speaker, and feminist.
Expanding the Language to Name the Problems
A second and related point of yours that I wanted to address was this critical issue of giving language to problems—problems that are too often rendered invisible if we don’t name them. You wrote:
By describing and naming that empty feeling—even naming it as the “problem that had no name” (though its characteristics were readily recognizable)—Betty Friedan was able to show these women they were not alone. She could help them realize that this nameless problem stemmed from a mythical and mystical view of women that denied women their full personhood and potential, a constellation of expectations that she termed the “feminine mystique.” And she introduced many women to some facts and aspects of women’s history that many had never heard before.
As you explained, just by naming the issue of the “feminine mystique,” Friedan brought many women out of isolated feelings of depression, and into shared space to grow and heal. I am a huge believer that our language itself must grow and evolve in order for us to see the complexities of the systems in which we all live. It amazes me that in giving language to a problem, we can then grow in our collective power to be able to change the problem.
So, I am left wondering what “problems with no name” need to be named today? And how might our current use of patterns of language cover up a particular contemporary “problem with no name?” My hunch is that some of the “problems with no name” we are still dealing with have to do with the way our language itself maintains structures of hierarchy by making obscure or even invisible the complexities of intersectionality. That’s probably why I tend to focus so much on the implied subject in a writer’s use of the word “woman” or “women.” I am curious about how language is encoded with privileged subject positions, such that some of us (like myself at times) speak about “women” as a monolithic category without realizing our own racism and classism that infuses our speech patterns.
Exploring Language and New Chapters
Letha, you know from our phone conversations the past few years, that I have a growing interest in rhetoric. We narrate, interpret, and shape the world through the tools of our language. Our systems of language enmesh us in a worldview that operates within us at unconscious levels. These days, I am particularly interested in the ways in which hegemonic patterns of language—or the ways in which some in positions of power name the world, particularly in terms of narrating U.S. history—hide psychological defense mechanisms that keep injustices at the fringe of our consciousness.
In these next few months, I will pursue those questions by stepping into the work of PhD applications. I will also be devoting a lot of energy to growing my business as a writing coach and as a teacher of feminist theory. And as you know (and you have already shared with the EEWC council), I have decided that this is a season of life of many transitions, and one transition is that I will no longer be continuing to write our 72/27 column.
In these past 3 years, it has been a tremendous privilege to co-author this blog with you, Letha. I have just sensed that all things come in seasons, and have felt that my season of writing this wonderful blog has come to a close as I stretch my wings in other directions. I hope in the coming months to focus more on other areas for my own creative writing, as well as the writing over at my own website. And I certainly hope that you and I will continue to write together and publish our work in both online and print magazines and journals, as we did with our “Liberating History” article about this blog in the June 2010 issue of Sojourners.
Ending my time as a writer of this blog doesn’t mean that I am exiting the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today community! It just means that I am transitioning into different focus points and types of writing in my career. I am so grateful for our readership over the past 3 years, and I am deeply appreciative of the ways in which co-authoring with you, Letha, has taught me a lot about both feminism and the craft of writing. And, of course, it is our friendship itself that continues to be so important to me!
I know that there are many others in our community who might enjoy contributing to an EEWC blog. So, at this point, I will look forward to reading the contributions of others. I know there are a lot of changes planned to expand readership to the site, which I am excited to see as they are developed.
With love and gratitude,