Unreal Choices: On The Feminine Mystique
What is remarkable about The Feminine Mystique is that it can seem, alternately, so antique and so fresh, a reminder of what has changed and what has not. For a progressive-minded reader, it contains its share of embarrassments, notably its disparagement of homosexuality and its suggestion that mothers sidelined by the mystique helped cause it.
Friedan, who attended graduate school in psychology (like my mother, she never finished), pays abundant homage to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, culminating in the “self-actualization” that so many women of her era renounced. But the book, with all its talk of smothering mothers and “arrested development,” remains overly indebted to the Freudian mindset and vocabulary it critiques.
On the other hand, Friedan’s analysis of American consumer culture, the media that buttress it, and the perils of women’s retreat to the home still convinces and still matters. The book, as I had remembered, has its longueurs and its repetitions. But they form a carapace that can scarcely contain the underlying emotions. This was, in the end, a cri de coeur of anguish and rage at what seemed to be Friedan’s own dead-end fate. It was a work of self-analysis through which she gained her own freedom from the feminine mystique.
The book owes its origins to an alumnae survey Friedan conducted in the late 1950s of her Smith College class of 1942, a group of women who entered the single-sex college with relatively high expectations. Most had since married and had children, and few worked outside the home. In interviews, Friedan discovered evidence of “the problem that has no name,” which manifested itself in discontent, depression and physical illness. She would ultimately define that problem as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities.” (Her focus, as critics have noted, was on middle-class women who could afford to renounce paid work, not the millions in mostly menial jobs outside the home.) Feminism, for Friedan, was fundamentally humanism, seen through a psychological lens: a question of growth, maturation and identity.
Friedan herself had been fired from a newspaper job for becoming pregnant with her second child. She had three children in all, and while raising them, worked as a freelance writer for women’s magazines. It was a part-time gig she compared to secret, solitary morning drinking—a deviation from the norm inconspicuous enough to escape notice. In the 1950s, she reports, most magazines for women were edited by men, and they increasingly disdained both serious, idea-based journalism and fictional depictions of strong career women in favor of endless articles on housewifery and childcare. Friedan was savvy enough to produce what the market wanted, but became “strangely bored with writing articles about breast feeding and the like.”
Nevertheless, as she detailed in the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition (one of the extras included in this new volume), she naturally turned to women’s magazines as an outlet for her Smith survey findings. McCall’s commissioned an article, but a male publisher “turned the piece down in horror, despite underground efforts of female editors,” Friedan writes. Ladies’ Home Journal assigned the story, but Friedan eventually withdrew it, “because they rewrote it to say just the opposite of what, in fact, I was trying to say.” After doing yet more interviews, she tried again with Redbook. But the magazine told Friedan’s agent that “only the most neurotic housewife could identify” with her client’s findings. It was out of desperation then, as a last resort, that Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, a five-year project that consumed her life and then altered it irrevocably.
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