Friday, July 11, 2008

Betty Friedan: The Feminine Mystique

Catching up with feminism 101... Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is not nearly even half as intimidating as The Second Sex which is more an encyclopaedia than a straight-forward feminist tract. It is actually a work of reportage with occasional rhetoic, written in a journalistic style about ideas which have become commonplace since its publication, even though the cultural diagnosis that she presents in the book still remains more or less applicable to our present day world.

Like Simone de Beauvoir her main focus in the book is existential too - the idea that the patriarchal culture denies women the opportunity to find their own identities as autonomous human beings and instead imprisons them with a deliberately constructed ideal of femininity, to which they must aspire if they hope for any self-fulfillment. Most of the book is about what really constitutes this ideal and how it is constructed and imposed on women. The most obvious ideal is that of happy and efficient suburban housewife. From her voluminous readings of women's magazines she unearths lots of details about what really goes on behind this figure of stereotype suburban housewife. Most of it is very funny and amusing and occasionally it is poignant too when she talks about "the problem that has no name" - the ever present anxiety and threat of boredom which forces them to find more and more housework, just as fillers. Some housewives may take exception to this. She even says that the housework is never too much, even when done manually and the reason they feel physically tired has psychological reasons. This is all somewhat predictable and well-known though occasionally she does point out more interesting details. She for example says that american society as a whole was much more progressive in 20s and 30s and women's magazines then were much more outward looking and interested in world affairs than the 50s. She also gives examples from the films, which will be obvious to anyone who has seen those classics of "women's films" (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and others.)

She takes on some academic topics later on like anthropology where she discusses the ideas of margaret mead and more importantly psychoanalysis and blatantly prejudiced theories and speculations of Freud which had an enormous influence in the way people thought about sex in the 20th century and which consequently did so much harm to the woman's liberation movement. Men are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Instead she lays the blame on "culture", that is the network of social and political institutions, consumerism, the media and the culture industry. I liked this aspect of book - the way she eschews gendered psychologization (looking for misogynist instinct in male psychology for instance). It also keeps the book from becoming irrelevant to contemporary readers because the cultural issues are the same as they were forty years ago. The institutionalized infantilization of adult women continues apace. The dominant discourse in the media aimed at women is still the same -- sex and shopping can solve all of life's problems!

There are a couple of questions which I think are important but which Friedan and other feminists, specially those who lament on the "opt-out" phenomenon (women leaving career and job to be housewives), never tackle. First the idea that the outside world and a life of career can be as stifling and identity-denying, if not more, as being a housewife. I think the point is to be financially self-dependent and also that women should go out in the world and struggle for themselves, even if they ultimately fail, and shouldn't be content with a sheltered life in a dollhouse marriage, both of which are absolutely valid I think. Also, even in comparatively liberated and modernized societies there is still this implicit assumption that the man has to be the primary breadwinner and even if a woman has a job, her earning is always seen as an extra. There is also this condescending attitude that women should work only because they would otherwise get bored sitting at home cooking and knitting. It is a much more difficult problem because the underlying prejudices are so strong. Men generally find women more intelligent and more academically qualified than themselves intimidating and conversely women look down upon such men with scorn. This is also the reason why there are so few women in science, engineering and on wall street and conversely so few men studying literature and art history.

This book is more of a historical interest and mostly dispensable if one has been reading the occasional op-eds on the subject. Simone de Beauvoir's book is however indispensable, absolutely mandatory on all book-shelves. I think it is a major intellectual scandal of our time that we don't yet have an authoritative English translation of this book.

The first chapter of the book "The Problem that has no name" is available here

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