The title: The Feminine Mystique
The author: Betty Friedan
Publication: Norton, 1963 (50th anniversary edition, 2013)
Got it from: Talking Leaves, Buffalo, 2015
I've finally gotten around to reading the big one, the grandmother of the modern feminist movement. The one that "pulled the trigger on history," an awesome phrase that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. I've read the reviews and the criticism: it's too focused on white women's experiences, it's too middle-class. The sections on Freud and Margaret Mead are a slog, and not as important to the average woman's experience.
All valid, of course. And yet, despite having jumped into the deep end of feminism a long time ago, this book was a revelation to me. Far from feeling like an anachronism, an inconsequential relic from another era, this book should be required reading for everyone entering adulthood. Yes, it's written for women, but the message about living up to your potential is a powerful message everyone should take to heart.
Here's the thing: and this is where I will deviate from my usual book review and into my own personal experience, because this book, to paraphrase one of my husband's favourite musical phrases, kicked at the darkness until it bled daylight in me. When you read it, everything in this book sounds so obvious. But it needs to be said, now as much as ever. Despite everything that feminism has done for us in the last fifty years and how hard Friedan and the other feminists fought, we have a long, long, long way to go. Reading about how women lived their lives as 1950s housewives cut off from the world, I just thought, I know these women. How can it be that fifty and sixty years later, this is still the archetype for ideal womanhood? How did we go so far and yet still be back there now?
I'll tell you what I see us having now. We have women "choosing" to be housewives rather than educating themselves or using their educations in a career. We have women not striving or working for anything beyond marrying a rich husband and having children. The Kardashians and the Real Housewives (all of them selfish, greedy, spoiled, and vapid) are held up as our role models. We have Mommy Bloggers, the alternative medicine movement, helicopter parenting, worrying over The Food Babe and Dr. Oz's latest scare tactics, making crafts, canning preserves, and one-upping each other on Facebook and Pinterest considered perfectly acceptable - no, imperative - ways to fill our time. As Friedan points out, almost none of the "important" tasks we are expected to perform as women would be difficult for an eight-year-old. Let that sink in for a few minutes.
If this is all your life consists of, you are not living a whole life, any more than the 1950s housewives were. And this is the crux of the whole book. Whether you hate what it says about your life or refuse to believe it is irrelevant. You cannot be a fully developed, happy human being as just a housewife. Without meaningful work in the outside world, your growth will be stunted as a human being. There will be a hole there that you will try to fill, usually in destructive ways: overparenting your children, arguing with your spouse, drugs, alcohol, affairs.
Reading this, I wanted to cry. It was something I have felt my whole life but have never been able to articulate. I have always abhorred the idea of being a housewife. I hated the thought of being confined because I was a woman, stuck inside doing boring, thankless chores, away from the human interactions and activities I craved. It's one of the many reasons I've chosen not to have children, because even the thought of being trapped and isolated with a small child makes me feel like I can't breathe. I don't mind being a woman, but I want to be a human being first and foremost, with all the pain and struggle and joy and rewards that come with it.
So I read the stories in this book with so much sadness. Because that could have been me. And I felt horrified and angry the more I read. What a waste, all those years and even centuries, because women couldn't work. I read about the woman who felt alive for the first time when she studied science in university and then was brainwashed into becoming a housewife. Or all the women who took drugs and sometimes ran naked through the streets because they couldn't take it any more. It sounds funny, but it shouldn't. It's horrifying. Most heartbreaking of all were the women who saw no way out - always the most intelligent, most promising women - who became trapped by the Feminine Mystique and took their own lives because the shadow life they led held no purpose for them.
I read this, and watched the recent documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry on Netflix, and I wanted to start my own revolution here and now. It still do. I want to tell women to wake up and fight to be heard. I want to tear down the walls of the religious institutions that say women are subservient and should be kept in the kitchen. Instead of shutting down abortion clinics, I want to shut down all the plastic surgery clinics and sleazy doctors who tell us we're not good enough. I want to fill social media with pictures of women's office party promotions instead of their bridal showers. I want to fire all the men in charge of the media and replace them with women who will greenlight stories that are relevant to me and show women in competent roles. I want to celebrate women who've smashed glass ceilings and talk about them at work instead of pointless celebrities. I want women to share political ideas instead of Pinterest ideas. I want to spend 1% of my day on grooming and 99% on making the world a better place.
If Betty Friedan can make me feel these things with a book written fifty years ago, it's no wonder she changed the world.