Friday, February 28, 2020

"The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan--Nonfiction Review

Once again, it’s Friday, and that means another review. In today’s non-fiction review, we’re talking about “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, the book that launched second-wave feminism in the United States. This can be a divisive topic for some, especially coming from me because I’m a man of very Nordic descent, but I like the book, and it’s my blog, so that’s why we’re talking about it. 

Betty Friedan

What I love about this book:

The book starts out explaining research the author did in the form of interviews with her peers, and as it goes on, it almost reads like a horror story. The feeling I get is there is a vast conspiracy happening, mainly targeted against women, but also society at large—and we’re all unwittingly a part of this conspiracy.

It delves into how the pressures of society, especially a post World War Two American society, crushed people into socially “acceptable” roles. Somehow we allowed in the land of the free—as we like to style ourselves—a status quo where it didn’t matter who you were, what you wanted, or what your skills and interests were. If you were a man, you did this, and if you were a woman, you did that, any deviance from the mold was terrible—no exceptions. That’s the essence of the problem that “The Feminine Mystique” captures and illuminates.

I like how the author demonstrates that even the entertainment of the day, and the media, reinforced gender stereotypes. It still does, by the way, just differently. She outlines how this, in combination with how casually discrimination was accepted as the norm, served to gaslight an entire generation of women. As the book goes on, like a horror story as I’ve already mentioned, everything, even mundane things like household appliances, take on a sinister light.

Powerfully, in addition to its feminist message, the book also captures an alternative snapshot of that post-WW2 American history I’ve talked about in a prior review. It shows that same time that is often remembered as being an optimistic time for the United States, as being more complicated than just smiles and rainbows for the world’s only superpower at the time. This is all unintentional, of course, because when “The Feminine Mystique” was published, it was a contemporary book for its time, not a history book. It does demonstrate how not everyone found the boom times after the war to be all that great, women for one. Friedan talks about how a lot of women, who were accustomed to working for a living, were suddenly forced out. This happened because there were a lot of returning men, soldiers, who needed jobs.   

What I don’t love about this book:

“The Feminine Mystique” has a blind spot for people—yes, including women—who were outside of the author’s immediate social circles—or class. The focus is on the struggles of middle-class white women, nearly exclusively, and only whispers over any woman outside of that scope. Obviously, sexism is bad for all women in all walks of life. However, the book’s primary stories address things like the monotonous suburban hell for women who have nothing else in their lives other than their husband, their children, and their house. This story is sometimes spiced with the addendum of how young academically inclined women gave up their degrees or careers to be admitted into that particular brand of hell—a theme clearly informed by the author’s own lived experience.

However, as bad as an endless existence of cooking, cleaning, buying washing machines, rearing children, and shattered dreams genuinely are—and there is no argument to say that isn’t a monotonous existence—you know what could be worse? Being a black woman in the 1950s or 1960s. Not telling the story of how sexism, on top of all the pressures of being a minority, and how it magnifies everything, is a huge missed opportunity. Sure, being stuck in an endless cycle where considering buying new curtains is the be-all and end-all of your days is nightmarish. But not being able to afford curtains and expect to feed your children, while watching some rednecks dressed in sheets, burn a cross on your lawn through that window you can’t provide curtains for is a whole new level of nightmare.      

Parting thoughts:

Betty Friedan, like a lot of historical figures, was also a product of her time. While in certain regards, she should be held up as a heroine for her radical belief—at the time she was alive and working—that women are just as much independent persons, with agency and dreams as much as men, she did have her failings. She wasn’t what you could call a friend of people outside of the heteronormative—to say the least.

This isn’t addressed in the book—but despite Friedan’s clarion call for women to be treated as people, as equals, and for freedom to live one’s life on their own terms—she was not a supporter of anyone who couldn’t be considered heterosexual. She did not honestly believe in gay rights for most of her life, often expressing “unease” with gay people. She did, however, evolve on this issue as her life went on, softened on earlier positions she had taken. Eventually, she even offered tepid support to lesbians and gay men. I say tepid because everything she did still reminded, even toward the end of her life, that she was still mired in the past. Like a beloved grandparent who intellectually has accepted that they can’t say, or do, things that they used to but never fully emotionally got there.

I bring this up because I’ve noticed a trend where we castigate historical figures for not being better than their times. Some diminish a person’s positive works because they failed to rise above the normal of their day. I agree it is a perfectly legitimate feeling to be disappointed by a historical person, even one’s own heroines and heroes, as an H.P. Lovecraft fan I have to be acutely aware of it every time I read his work. However, to disregard everything they ever did or achieved, simply because they don’t live up to our current standards is unfair—for one, they never got the chance to live in and develop from a young age in today’s contemporary society. Maybe if they had, their sharper edges would have been blunter, or wouldn’t exist at all. The counter-argument would have to assume that people are somehow born better people today, which is nonsense. I believe people of every era are born a mixed bag of good and bad, in about the exact same degree, the flavors of their virtues and vices can be a bit different, but it’s all just a matter of perspective.

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