February 19 2013

Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique Turns Fifty This Month...

Charlotte Hays

This month fifty years ago Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published.

There is much than can—and will, no doubt—be said of this milestone.

But Lauren Noble, writing on The Corner, wisely restricts herself to one aspect of Frieden’s ideas and how they have played out over five decades: women and academia.

In 1963 Friedan “lamented the declining engagement of women in the life of the mind” and proposed that female students often weren’t interested in “getting a serious education.”

I've often thought that this allegation, often lodged, simply wasn't true--there have always been distinguished women authors and scholars. The idea that there were few well-educated women before feminism is offensive to me. But be that as it may...let's move on.

It can’t be denied that things have changed. Women now outnumber men on college campuses, and starting in 2011, women earned more advanced degrees than men.  One relatively new academic field, praised by Friedan in a 1997 addendum to Mystique, strikes me as a disaster, however. I refer to women’s studies.

As Noble recalls, Friedan hailed women’s studies as “a serious separate discipline.” Noble goes on to write:

Many of these women’s-studies departments have gone off on bizarre tangents, bearing no relation to most women’s experience or interests.

Take the most recent course catalogues from leading institutions of higher education. This academic year in women’s-studies departments, students can immerse themselves in courses such as “Friends with Benefits?,” “Virgins, Vamps, and Camp: Gender and Sexuality in Classical Hollywood Cinema,” “Gender in a Transnational World,” “Black Sexuality in Literature and Popular Culture,” and “Types of Ideology and Literary Form — Pornography, Gender and the Rise of the Novel in Europe.”

Perhaps the most bizarre of them all is “Theorizing Sexual Violence.” What, exactly, is there to theorize about? Rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violence are wrong; end of story.

And then there’s last semester’s course on “Theory and Politics of Sexual Consent.” The course description tells us that the class covers “topics such as sex work, nonnormative sex, and sex across age differences explored through film, autobiography, literature, queer commentary, and legal theory.” The course explores the “political, legal, and feminist theory and critiques of the concept of sexual consent.” …

It is difficult to see how the sex-directed curriculum offered in the late 1950s on marriage and the family was any less practical or intellectually demanding than the sex-obsessed curriculum offered by today’s women’s-studies departments. How does a discussion of sexual consent or violence engage the life of the mind, let alone prepare women for the careers in law, business, and medicine that Friedan deemed serious? Pseudo-academic disciplines like women’s studies seem to offer nothing more than, as Friedan put it [referring to 1950s education for women], “a sophisticated soup of uncritical prescriptions and presentiments.”

Discuss among yourselves.

 

 

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