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2006 Women's History Month

The builders of new myths

page two

Reinventing feminism

In her tribute to Friedan, Salon's Joan Walsh critiques Linda Hirshman's draconian prescription for women's equality and concludes that Friedan -- who Hirshman considers her model -- was the founding mother of "choice feminism" ("Feminism After Friedan," 6.feb.06). "The answer isn't a feminism that labels women enemies of the movement if they choose to stay home with their kids when they can," writes Walsh. "Let's use Friedan's passing to remind us that, problematic though it may be, we have no choice but to commit ourselves to 'choice feminism.'"

Yet Friedan's theory of the feminine mystique was not so much about expanding women's choices as it was about mythologizing an alternative formula for female self-fulfillment. By shifting the focus of feminism from the rights of the individual to the psychological realm of self-expression, Friedan effectively politicized the personal -- and forever changed the way we think about feminism.

Before the relative prosperity of the 1950s, the American women's movement was infinitely more concerned with defending woman's right to self-possession than her potential for self-actualization. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in Solitude of Self (1892):

The strongest reason for giving women all of the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influence of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.

The notion that traditional marriage and motherhood are incompatible with women's autonomy and aspirations for a role in public life was not unknown to first wave feminists, but in 1957, when Betty Friedan discovered "the problem that has no name," it was not yet conventional wisdom. When Friedan and her classmates graduated from Smith College in 1942, the types of jobs open to women generally conveyed less social status than marriage and motherhood. And since women's work was uniformly underpaid, marriage was still the most readily available route to economic security for women of Friedan's generation. As she wrote in her introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan was not "even conscious of the woman problem" before she started looking into it; her original plan had been to write an article "disproving the notion that education had fitted us ill for our roles as women."

Friedan quickly surmised, however, that all was not well in the land of post-War suburbia. Housewives with picture-perfect lives were experiencing an inner void that the joys of home and family life could not fill. Friedan demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the social function and cultural construction of femininity, and the use of popular and consumer culture to reinforce it. Yet she ultimately diagnosed women's dissatisfaction with their situation as an identity crisis:

It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women. There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or "I" without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive. For women of ability, in America today, I am convinced there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous.

What women needed, Friedan determined, was a "New Life Plan," one involving less domestic toil and more higher education followed by interesting professional or creative work that might push them to grow to their "full human capacities:"

For "self-realization" or "self-fulfillment" or "identity" does not come from looking into a mirror in rapt contemplation of one's own image. Those who have most fully realized themselves, in a sense that can be recognized by the human mind even though it cannot be clearly defined, have done so in a human purpose larger than themselves… man finds himself by losing himself; man is defined by his relation to the means of production; the ego, the self grows through the understanding and mastering of reality -- through work and love.

If Friedan suspected women's efforts to cast off conformity and find a true purpose in life would be complicated by the fact that they lived in sexist society, she did not confess her doubts. If she had an inkling that attainment of adult identity and self-fulfillment is also shaped by negotiating the relational terrain of marriage and parenting, she kept it to herself. And if she believed that less privileged women are also entitled to employment conditions that permit them to feel fully human, she never discussed it. Working class women inhabit the shadow world of The Feminine Mystique, performing their duties as maids, housekeepers, cooks and nannies in silence.

The Second Sex

A decade before Friedan announced, "We can no longer ignore the voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband, my children and my home,'" a more revolutionary and controversial book had examined the emptiness of women's lives and the complexity of their subordination. In a sweeping theoretical work which is at once brilliant, extravagantly flawed and coldly sensible about barriers to women's equality, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex: Woman as Other (translated from the original French and released in the U.S. in 1953) predicted most of the major issues and tensions in feminism today, including women's status as a socially subordinate caste; the creation of gender; the institution of male privilege; challenges to unifying women for political action; women's sexuality, sexual identification and reproductive roles; exclusion of women from the historic record; abortion and contraception; the soul-killing grind of housework; the sexual politics of women's attire; the importance of gainful employment to women's emancipation, and the "second shift."

As with Friedan, Beauvior claimed she was unaware of the extent of women's inequality before undertaking her study of woman's situation, even though she started working on The Second Sex a year before France gave women the right to vote. In a 1982 interview, Beauvoir explained, "I was beginning to formulate the thesis that woman had not been given equality in our society, and I must tell you that this was an extremely troubling discovery for me. This is really how I began to be serious about writing about women -- when I fully realized the disparities in our lives as compared to men. But [in 1947], none of this was clear to me."(3)

Beauvoir -- who, like Friedan and, more recently, Judith Warner and Linda Hirshman, portrayed married homemakers as dependent, infantile, passive, bored, self-absorbed, masochistic and manipulative -- reserved a special disdain for housekeeping as women's primary work:

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled becomes clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out simply marking time: she makes nothing, she simply perpetuates the present…

Woman's work within the home gives her no autonomy; it is not directly useful to society, it does not open out on the future, it produces nothing. It takes on meaning and dignity only as it is linked with existent beings who reach out beyond themselves, transcend themselves, toward society in production and action. That is, far from freeing the matron, her occupation makes her dependent upon her husband and children; she is justified through them; but in their lives she is only an inessential intermediary.

Trapped in this cycle of menial drudgery (Beauvoir used the terms "housewife," "vassal" and "slave" interchangeably), woman "is not allowed to do something positive and in consequence win recognition as a complete person. However respected she may be, she is subordinate, secondary, parasitic." While Beauvoir conceded that woman's pathetic state was not entirely voluntary, she warned that women must commit themselves to a fully liberated life if they hoped to transcend it. "In every act, in every work, it is the factor of choice and decision that counts. …Only independent work of her own can assure women's genuine independence" (emphasis added). However, Beauvoir, unlike Friedan, acknowledged that most occupations available to women were not rewarding or stimulating, and, even under optimal conditions, participation in the paid labor force could not guarantee women's equality with men:

…[T]he woman who works is not regarded as supporting the couple in the same sense as does a man; there are a great many for whom "outside work" represents within the frame of marriage only a matter of fatigue. Besides… it is very difficult to reconcile work and maternity under present conditions.

On the topic of motherhood, Beauvoir's tone was slightly less strident. While she was adamant that "no maternal instinct exists… the mother's attitude depends on her total situation and her reaction to it," she also added that "unless the circumstances are positively unfavorable the mother will find her life enriched by the child." Still, Beauvoir rejected the proposition that "maternity is enough in all cases to crown a woman's life:"

It is nothing of the kind. There are a great many mothers who are unhappy, embittered, unsatisfied. …The mother's relation with her children takes form within the totality of her life; it depends on her relations with her husband, her past, her occupation, herself; it is an error as harmful as it is absurd to regard the child as a universal panacea. …That the child is the supreme aim of the woman is a statement having precisely the value of an advertising slogan.

The Second Sex also articulated one of the grounding concepts of feminist motherhood: the best mothers, Beauvoir argued, are free mothers, and society's failure to support maternal autonomy is a form of oppression:

The woman who enjoys the richest individual life will have the most to give her children and will demand less from them; she who acquires in effort and struggle a sense of true human values will be best able to bring them up properly. If too often today, woman can hardly reconcile with the best interests of her children an occupation that keeps her away from home for hours and takes all her strength, it is, on the one hand, because feminine employment is still too often a kind of slavery, and on the other, because no effort had been made to provide for the care, protection and education of children outside the home. This is a matter of negligence on the part of society; but it is false to justify it on the pretense that some law of nature, God, or man requires that mother and child belong exclusively to another; this restriction constitutes in fact only a double and baneful oppression.

The task before us now is to decide what we wish to be free from, and how this liberty can best be achieved.

crafting new narratives of women, work and family

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