February 28 2013
Betty’s World: Fifty Years of Friedan
When we at the IWF are asked what women ought to do, we say that a job outside of the house is fine and working in the home is likewise fine.
Julia Shaw has an interesting piece analyzing Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan’s grim take on the latter. Since the influential book is just turning fifty, Shaw’s observations are timely.
Friedan didn’t have much regard for the choice to work in the home, which she found unfulfilling and monotonous. Shaw writes that Friedan’s view of such work—the feminine mystique—was flawed:
Friedan devotes much of her book to analyzing the sources of the mystique: including women’s magazines, advertisers, educators, Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead. Examining these sources 50 years later, Friedan’s arguments range from mundane to laughable: women’s magazines are frivolous; why doesn’t the pie-mix ad tell women to be astronomers; Freud was a terrible husband; Mead had the wrong conclusions. She argues that the mystique creates a sort of false consciousness: It deceives a housewife into thinking that she’s an “equal partner to man in his world.”
Not true, Friedan says. Housewives are not equal to men. While men are engaged in human work, housewives putter around their comfortable concentration camp. Of course, suburban women aren’t marching off to the slaughter. She used the image of a concentration camp because housewives, like prisoners, are “forced to spend their days in work” that is “monotonous, endless,” that involves “no mental concentration,” offers “no hope of advancement or recognition” and is “controlled by the needs of others.” The concentration camp image clarifies Friedan’s key premise: Women are not human in the housewife role.
Although there is a wholesome reaction to this monochromatic view, we do to some extent, as Shaw argues, still live in Betty Friedan’s world. Her demeaning take on domestic life is still implicit to some extent in society’s view of women and work. Shaw concludes:
The argument of The Feminine Mystique is not worth celebrating. Friedan did not write a manifesto advocating for women to have the opportunity to get out of the house, get an education and get jobs. No, Friedan’s fundamental premise is that women must do these things to be considered human. In other words, women who do what women have been doing for millennia—tending house and caring for their families—are sub-human. What’s more, they are ruining society. Her support for these incendiary claims? A critical reading of Ladies’ Home Journal and Freud.
To 21st-century women who have begun to see through the flimsy arguments: It’s time to reassess. We don’t need to go back to the 1950s, but we can’t stay here.