Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Feminine Mystique - by Betty Friedan

During World War II millions of American women went to work in factories at jobs left by men who were fighting overseas. Spurred on by a government campaign that included Rosie the Riveter, these women also became de facto heads of household and were responsible for running the household finances. When the war ended women were not only forced out of these jobs (again, by government campaign) so that men could have them, they were also discouraged from completing their educations, so that they could instead marry young and become "housewives". Aided and abetted by women's magazines, and even the curriculum in women's colleges, the myth of the "feminine mystique" gave the post-war generation of women the message that they could best find fulfillment as wives, mothers, and housekeepers. The messages and images from the 1950s put men in the role of protectors and breadwinners, while women were told they didn't need an education, career, or even a job (Rosie the Riveter not withstanding). Having these things would not only prevent them from fully developing as women, it would also undermine their husbands' roles. In reality, of course, the women's development was stunted, and they were left to wonder what was missing from their lives.

Earlier this year the publishing and library magazines that routinely come across my desk featured articles that reflected on the 50 years since the publishing of Friedan's feminist manifesto. (A 50th- anniversary edition has been published, but I read a 10th-anniversary edition). I had heard about this classic work, and remember selling copies of it back in my college days working in a bookstore, but I had never read it. It seemed the time was right. I could not have imagined how right it was. I started writing this post even before I finished the first chapter. By the time I got to the third chapter my head was spinning. There is just so much to say about this book. As the writer of this New York Times article states some of the attitudes reflected in the work "remain unchanged". Here I point to several recent news stories:

Facebook recently lit up with protests when Swiffer co-opted the famous World War II "Rosie the Riveter" icon to sell a cleaning product. 


Swiffer did respond to protests by removing the image from its advertising.

A recent report from the University of Chicago revealed that in 40% of households women are the primary breadwinners. In many cases this is because there is no man present, nevertheless, four commentators from FoxNews have a meltdown over this news.' It is against nature'. 'It will destroy the American family'. The fear that the men's role as protector will be undermined is too evident. This shows little change from Friedan's statement 50 years before that "[a]t every step of the way feminists had to fight the conception that they were violating the God-given nature of women". Friedan also quotes from the book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex which claimed that "careers and higher education were leading to the 'masculization of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home...'"

To follow up on this vitriol, in June  a high school commencement speaker in Indiana told graduating young women to embrace their roles as wives and mothers. "We don't need more women CEOs" he says in clear response to the popularity of Sheryl Sandberg's recent bestseller Lean In (which I just started reading, if she mentions libraries you'll find out here!).

Short stories in women's magazines the 1950s & 1960s contained messages that women should be wondering why straying husbands were looking elsewhere. What could a woman do that might bring her husband back? Change her hair color? Lose some weight? Keep the house cleaner? It is her job to figure out why he is cheating, and make the necessary changes to herself! so that he'll come backAnd so also says Pat Robertson, 2013.

Articles in women's magazines then (as now) featured actress not in their roles as successful career women, but as wives and mothers. (And, by the way, can we please stop using the term "baby bump"? And what's with the arrow always pointing to a celebrity's stomach, as if we wouldn't know which part of a woman's body to look at for evidence that she's pregnant!?)

Janet Maslin, the author of the aforementioned NYT article closes by saying "I have a photograph of myself with Betty Friedan. We were together on a radio show. I was there because I was a critic for The Times and I arrived at The Times because of opportunities her book created. I wish I had known how much I owed her." This statement I contrast to conservative political commentator Monica Crowley's remarks in the fabulous PBS series "Makers". Twice in her short segment Crowley refers to feminists as "so called" feminists, as if that is not what they really were (or that perhaps we no longer exist), and clearly has no recognition that she would be never have gotten where she is without benefiting from their struggle. I highly recommend watching the Makers series, BTW. All three episodes can be viewed by clicking on the link above.

But what does Friedan say about libraries?
Yes, Betty Friedan did write about libraries in this work. She begins with acknowledging the "Frederick Lewis Allen Room of the New York Public Library and its provision to a writer of quiet work space and continuous access to research sources" without which "this particular mother of three might never have started a book, much less finished it". She also describes sitting "for many days in the New York Public Library, going through bound volumes of American women's magazines for last twenty years." This image resonated with me because it reminded me of doing the same sort of project myself in the 1980s when I took my first Women's Studies class. I was assigned to look at women's magazines from the 1940s and remember sitting with the big bound volumes at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Other students in my class were assigned to look at other decades. I remember our professor telling us that we shouldn't expect see much change in the messages over the 50-year time period we were studying, even though the images may have evolved. I was particularly interested in the fact that Friedan discovered that the magazines from the 1930s and 1940s did carry more articles about "the world outside the home" than those of the 1950s and 1960s. 

I was saddened to see this message about librarians in a passage in which Friedan describes the types of career-woman role models she had growing up
The only other kind of women I knew [besides housewives]...were the old-maid high-school teachers; the librarian; the one woman doctor in our town, who cut her hair like a man; and a few of my college professors. None of these women lived in the warm center of life as I had known it at home. Many had not married or had children. I dreaded being like them, even the ones who truly taught me to respect my own mind and use it, to feel that I had a part in the world. I never knew a woman, when I was growing up, who used her mind, played her own part in the world, and also had children. 
I have thought about this passage a lot. It reminded me of learning about Sor Juana Ines, the Spanish mystic nun and author who lived during the 17th century. She, like her brethren, knew that the way for a woman to become educated in their day was to become a nun, which did necessarily giving up marriage and children. It is too bad that Friedan seemed to see these teacher and librarian career women as simply "old-maids", rather than as women who made a choice to become educated and have a career - a choice that allowed the women activists who came after them to build upon their work and knowledge, so that others might have a few more choices themselves. Again, it is important to acknowledge those who came before us.

In interviewing young college women in 1959 Friedan spoke to one senior who lamented not using the library more. She had taken to "wandering around the stacks" to find books that interested her. She wished, in fact that she had developed more interests. She had learned her freshman year to "turn up [her] nose at the library". But as a graduating senior she wished she had taken harder courses and read more. "But" she adds, "I guess those things don't matter when you're married." Another young woman, who admitted to being excited by books, and would sometimes spend all day (8 a.m. to 10 p.m.) in her college library dropped out of the honors program and stopped reading quite so much, for fear of not being able to lead a rich life which she said included marriage, children and "a nice house".

Other places libraries are mentioned were as places for women to volunteer. Remarkably, she also notes that the more interesting volunteer jobs-
the leadership of the cooperative nurseries, the free libraries, the school board posts, even the PTA presidencies - are filled by men. The housewife who doesn't "have time" to take serious responsibility in the community, like the woman who doesn't "have time" to pursue a professional career, evades a serious commitment through which she might finally realize herself; she evades it by stepping up her domestic routine until she is fully trapped.
Furthermore she notes that women who did step into these more challenging roles found a greater sense of fulfillment.

This book is a must read. Its message is clearly just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

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