Sunday, July 21, 2013

On the 50th Anniversary of "The Feminine Mystique"

This article on the 50th Anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique got my attention because it's a worthy anniversary to celebrate. The article annoyed me. I got part way down the comments before I lost my temper altogether.

Like so much of contemporary journalism, the article is oversimplified to the point of being downright inaccurate. Friedan's book ignited flames, on both sides of the issue. Many women identified with the "Mystique" and joined together to resurrect the Women's Movement that gave women suffrage in the 1920's, and then lay fallow during the awful years of Depression and War. By the early 1960's the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Women participated at nearly every level, except in decision-making. Middle class white women were supposed to wait until racial equality was achieved before advancing their issues. After that, they were supposed to wait until the Peace Movement ended the War. 

Betty Friedan's book hit the bookshelves at the perfect moment to attract the attention of many educated women of all ages who believed their contributions to their families and communities were both undervalued and underutilized. They were smart, articulate and capable of doing so much more with their lives than the Cold War culture would allow. So, at first a few at a time and later in droves, they put down their aprons and got busy working for Women's Liberation -- which they were often quick to point out is really about Human Transformation. The Sisters wanted the Brothers to be liberated from their rigid gender roles, too. 

After I read the first sentence of this article, I thought it was going to be a satire. But by the time I got half way through, I realized that the author was actually (incredibly) serious when she wrote: In the 50 years since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, women’s lives have been transformed, almost entirely for the better. Seriously?  On what planet would that be?  Yes, in the past 50 years our lives have transformed in ways that were unimaginable even in the world of the Jetsons.  Much of it has been good, but not all of it has been even close to "for the better."  

A lot of young women today write about the Feminist Movement as though it were over. Like President Bush standing on that aircraft carrier, they declare victory and prepare to move on.  It doesn't work that way. The war in Iraq wasn't over because our president declared victory, as we know nearly ten years later.

The movement toward gender equality isn't over, either.  Maybe equality, like freedom, is something so precious we will always have to guard it carefully, and be prepared to defend it when necessary. I would argue that, in recent years -- and I think largely due to the complacency of the women and men who think that the "strife is o're and the battle won" -- the movements for civil rights for women and men of all races have lost ground. A lot of ground.  

Women's rights are under attack on all fronts. We have popular religious figures and a few Republican office holders who advocate for the return of patriarchal marriage.  "Wives, be obedient to your husbands."  Our reproductive rights are under attack in many legislative bodies, including Congress. Sex education is virtually absent from our schools. Some forms of popular music and alleged "humor" are all about denigrating women.  

While some research seems to indicate young men are stepping up somewhat (good on them!), working women are still responsible for most of the care and feeding of their families. They are responsible for lining up babysitters, doctor appointments, doing the shopping and the cooking, helping with the homework, doing the laundry and doing the lion's share of the housework. In many households the wife/mother is doing everything that a full-time homemaker would do, plus holding down a full-time job.  This is better for her and her family? How?

Friedan lived in a world where smart, educated women were kept in a pink ghetto, baking cookies and waiting for their husbands to come home, so they could serve him a martini and dinner. I love Frank Sinatra's music, but to this day, I hear the first few notes of Hey, Little Girl and I want to break something. That was truly the attitude at the time. My dad once (jokingly - ?) asked my mother why she didn't run the sweeper in pearls and heels like June Cleever. He lived to tell about it, but he never asked that question again. 

Friedan and her contemporaries, the founders of NOW and other prominent feminists of the era, including the incomparable Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas (whose tone was less strident but whose commitment was and remains as deep), offered both women and men a new way of looking at gender relationships.  They invited both men and women to step out and be more, do more, and offer more to one another than traditional gender roles allowed.

Their courage in the face of ridicule and threats of physical violence gave women of my generation opportunities to learn, grow and participate in our communities in ways that were not possible for our mothers. Our daughters take those opportunities totally for granted. 

Unfortunately, the progress that men and women have made in the last fifty years is under attack on many fronts. 

Betty Friedan didn't "start" the Women's Movement. She gave women a vocabulary with which to discuss the "problem that had no name" that plagued women in the Cold War culture of the early 1960's. In so doing she helped to reawaken the yearnings that created the Women's Suffrage Movement a hundred years before. Friedan then lived the rest of her life devoted to furthering the cause of women. She has gone to her rest, but the struggle is not over. 

If you want proof, scroll down to the Comments at the bottom of the article.  I couldn't stomach all of them, but the ones I saw were enough to affirm my opinion that we have a lot of work to do. 

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