by Chanel Dubofsky
My copy of The Feminine Mystique has a smell that I associate with trashy romance novels. I haven’t opened it in years, probably since I read it for a giant paper I wrote in college, about Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, confessional poetry and the domestic trap of the 1960’s. If you haven’t read it, here’s the deal (but you should read it): Friedan interrogates “the problem that has no name”, which is the misery of women living in material comfort who have husbands and children.
In short, women are told their entire lives that they will and must find fulfillment exclusively in their roles as a homemaker, wife, and mother. At the end of the book, Friedan discusses the importance of shifting our thinking around femininity, fulfillment, education and activism.
The book scared the hell out of me. I read it in my dorm lounge, and at the risk of being dramatic, my reaction was probably proportional to that of people when they saw “The Exorcist” during its original run in theatres. Whatever hallmates happened to be around were pulled into the lounge and asked, “Can you believe this shit??”
The idea of not having a choice in whether or not you got married and had children was terrifying. (I was not yet necessarily critical of marriage as an institution, but I was heading there). What was perhaps the most distressing about the book was how women were made to think of themselves as martyrs to the causes of wifedom and motherhood, suppressing other desires and needs that made them full humans.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, and there’s been various and assorted conversation around it. How far has feminism come? Have we accomplished anything? Are things better? (You know, not vague questions at all.)
It’s easy to blow off the book as not being relevant. For a lot of women, it never was. One of the things we’ve learned since the Feminine Mystique is that feminism is futile if it’s only a movement for white, upper-middle class women, which is unfortunately how it’s presented in the book. Feminism is still struggling with this, and we’ll continue to do so as long as white privilege remains a reality. Identifying as a feminist doesn’t mean you understand the concept of intersectionality, and as far as I’m concerned, a movement without that isn’t capable of forward motion.
I would also argue that while (most) white, economically privileged women are not expected to go right from college to their husband as they were in the era of the mystique, the idea that women are full human beings remains a cognitive challenge.
We’re still expected to want husbands and babies, to devote some part of our energy and creativity to planning our weddings. We can’t be trusted to make decisions about our own bodies because we’re too stupid, too sexual, too frenetic, too fragile, too female. Men are still supposed to be the answer, the panacea. The notion of “choice” feminism allows us to assign the title “feminist” to whatever decisions we make, no matter how toxic to ourselves and other women, or how much they perpetuate systems of oppression that feminism (should) be actively working against.
Things are still broken. Some things are better, for some people. It’s important to acknowledge progress, of course, and to recognize when we are so battle weary that we can’t see it. But things are also more complicated. Friedan’s book can be an instruction manual for a revolution, to be used as a measuring stick, a warning, and a magnifying glass.