Unreal Choices: On The Feminine Mystique
In an afterword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, the novelist Anna Quindlen recalls seeing her mother, a housewife, sitting at the kitchen table engrossed in the book. I have no comparable memory, but I did inherit my mother’s paperback copy of Betty Friedan’s 1963 manifesto, complete with underlining and exclamation points.
The book might have been written expressly for her, an ambitious 1948 alumna of New York University who went on to do graduate work in English literature at Boston University and then at Radcliffe, where she earned top marks. By then, she was married to my father, a Harvard-trained physicist who had grown up a block away from her in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood.
When my father received a tenure offer from the University of Pennsylvania, my parents moved from Cambridge to Philadelphia, and then to the Main Line suburbs. They quickly had two daughters. And though my mother returned repeatedly to her dissertation on Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel Clarissa, she never finished it, and never embarked on the academic career for which she had once seemed destined. Instead, she buffed her floors to a high gloss, channeled her creativity into mosaics and dinner parties, and erupted periodically in angry outbursts that left the rest of the family cowering.
I first read The Feminine Mystique many years ago, probably in high school. I recalled it as pedantic and repetitive, less alluring and radical than later feminist classics by Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) and Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex). By the 1970s, in my mother’s unhappy home, the lessons Friedan taught about the mystique—which equated womanhood with housekeeping and child-rearing—must have seemed all too obvious.
As a personality, Friedan was notoriously abrasive. As a leader, she had a contentious relationship with the organized women’s movement she helped found, fighting over sexual politics and the importance of family life (which, after divorcing in 1969, she still valued). But she would continue to speak and write about economic fairness, changing gender roles and aging, among other issues, and remained an important liberal voice until her death in 2006, on her eighty-fifth birthday. I interviewed her once at a National Organization for Women conference in Philadelphia, in 1987, and I remember only her brusqueness. Or maybe it was my fear.
Returning to The Feminine Mystique again recently, in my 50s, with a deeper empathy for the trajectory of my mother’s life, I was touched by the book more profoundly. It reminded me, once again, that my mother’s failures and disappointments were not hers alone, and that new generations of women still risked entrapment by the remnants of the mystique.
These days, of course, women’s choices are both less constrained and less clear-cut. Yet they remain different from men’s. At the time of my twenty-fifth college reunion, in 2002, almost half the women in my class—which, by coincidence, included Friedan’s daughter, Emily—had stopped working full time, most likely because their husbands were making so much money. According to a class survey, the median income for male graduates working full time, as nearly all were, was an astounding $200,000.
The American media never seem to weary of publishing articles and books on why women can’t “have it all,” a yardstick almost never applied to men. A recent provocateur was foreign policy expert and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who complained in an Atlantic cover story about the excessive demands of high-level government service. But it was hard to summon up much sympathy: after quitting the State Department, Slaughter still enjoyed not just a thriving academic career but an accommodating husband, two sons and enough time to complain about this embarrassment of riches. Her article, with its cover image of a toddler in a briefcase, became a social media sensation, and now she has a book contract too.
However dubious Slaughter’s example, and however tired the phrase, “work-life balance” remains an obsessive and sometimes elusive goal for women, and increasingly for men as well. Many of my married or otherwise partnered women friends seem to be marooned in uncomfortable polarities. Some are at home, having given up paid work, wondering what, if anything, comes next. They talk of vague boredom or restlessness, subclinical variants of Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” Others, having been freed by feminism to claim their professional competence, are twenty-first-century superwomen. Anticipating the ballyhooed advice of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, they have already “leaned in,” and then some. While still shouldering the bulk of the housework and childcare (which the sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously dubbed “the second shift”), they find themselves supporting under- or unemployed men hampered by the economy, outdated skills, or a lack of focus or ambition.
Hanna Rosin highlighted this phenomenon in her recent book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, which also began as an Atlantic cover story. Don Peck’s Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, yet another Atlantic offshoot, explored how hard times are affecting blue-collar workers and family dynamics. But the full story of this latest gender upheaval still awaits its definitive chronicler, its own Friedan.
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