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2006 women's history month

The builders of new myths

Friedan, feminism and the future

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

March 2006

All revolutionaries, regardless of sex, are the smashers of myths and the destroyers of illusion. They have always died and lived again to build new myths. They dare to dream of a utopia, a new kind of synthesis and equilibrium.

-- Patricia Hayden, Donna Middleton, and Patricia Robinson
from "A Historical and Critical Essay for Black Women," 1969-70(1)

It's always been my goal to help this generation of mothers see their lives and dilemmas as part of the stream of history. My motives for this are not purely intellectual; while I appreciate the advantages of living in an age of high-speed, issue-driven activism, I can't shake the feeling that charting a better course for the future depends on understanding how we got into so much trouble in the first place.

It's widely accepted, for example, that present day tensions about women, work and family -- which are flagrantly on display in the media's obsession with the so-called "mommy wars" -- originated in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan counseled middle-class women to abandon the dreariness of suburban housewifery and seek self-fulfillment through challenging paid work. But in Unfinished Work: Building Equality and Democracy in an Era of Working Families, Jody Heymann, Christopher Beem and other work-life scholars emphasize that the primary source of America's work-family disconnect is not women's pursuit of equality, but the nation's failure to address major economic and demographic shifts caused by the industrial revolution. In the last 150 years, Heymann writes, "there has been a revolution in where, how and by whom paid work is done in industrialized countries. The response to these changes will be critical to the success of American society."

The revival of women's movement clearly played a role in accelerating married mothers' entry into the paid labor force during the second half of the twentieth century. But as David Hernandez explains in his study on the changing demographics of families, rising rates of maternal employment were mainly a reaction to economic conditions.(2) Before 1940, he writes, "many parents had three major avenues for maintaining, improving, or regaining their financial status. They could move off the farm for fathers to obtain comparatively well-paid jobs, they could have fewer children to allow available income to be spread less thinly, or they could increase their education." But Hernandez points out that by 1940, most adults no longer lived on farms, most families were raising only one or two children, and educational opportunities for men over the age of 25 were limited; "The historical avenues to improving the relative economic status of their families had already closed for a large majority of parents." A fourth avenue for improving families' financial stability opened up between 1940 and 1960, when more jobs for women became available after World War II, and historic increases in school enrollment left more mothers available for daytime employment. The timing for the arrival of feminism's second wave was auspicious for a society in which the existing pathways for families' economic security were nearly exhausted and, for the first time in the nation's history, the majority of American mothers had twelve or more years of education. Between 1950 and 2000, the number of American children with employed mothers grew from 16 to 70 percent. In the early 1980s, women's wages -- although still substantially lower than men's -- began to climb, and by the year 2000, married, employed mothers were working an average of 33 hours a week.

But Betty Friedan's call for an overhaul of the new cult of domesticity was not merely -- or even primarily -- about increasing women's opportunities for breadwinning. (As Friedan noted in the concluding chapter of The Feminine Mystique, the employed wives she interviewed reported that "the money they earned often made life easier for the whole family, but none of them pretended this was the only reason they worked, or the main thing they got out of it.") By deconstructing the myth of the "happy housewife heroine," Friedan's ambition was to awaken educated, middle-class women to their potential for self-actualization through a commitment to work outside the home.

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 is 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

I've cited Beauvoir's The Second Sex at length both to highlight its relationship to Friedan's work and the process by which myth is broken down and rebuilt in the interest of social change. As the short passage introducing this essay suggests, the role of revolutionaries is to reveal the fractures and fallacies of the existing order and provide the outline for a suitable replacement. The thing about both the incoming and outgoing myths is that they can only exist as concepts or generalities -- they can never reflect the totality of each individual's unique circumstances, experiences, losses and desires. But an effective change narrative has to contain enough obvious or shared truths to make it resonant and memorable, and -- if a prescription for the future is in order-- it must include a course of action with substantially achievable goals. That could include anything from changing the system from within to armed revolt.

In the case of dismantling the feminine mystique, Betty Friedan hit the jackpot. She identified a trend that women could see and feel in their own lives, she used accessible language and concepts to locate the source of their pain, and she offered a quick and relatively easy fix: No need to overthrow the patriarchy -- just relinquish your passive dependency and get a job! But by elevating middle-class women's right to self-expression over the expansion of individual rights, Friedan contributed to a cultural climate in which women's concerns were easily minimized as a failure to adjust to the status quo. Women changed, but the world did not rush to meet them.

So far, I've discussed a half dozen myths and change narratives in this essay. In the first section, I discussed the myth of the "mommy wars" and the common misperception that it was feminism, rather than changing economic conditions, which led to the near-extinction of married couple-single earner households at the end of the twentieth century and the resulting time-and-care crunch families face today. I've touched on the mythology of choice; the positive vision of women's self-possession and potential for self-realization; the negative myth of full-time homemakers as maladjusted, passive parasites; the fatal myth of women's liberation through conformity to the male model of status and success; the myth that all aspects of professional work provide a meaningful sense of accomplishment; and the conjoined myths of maternal instinct and maternal bliss. One myth that I have not yet mentioned -- which is the central flaw of both Betty Friedan's and Simone de Beauvoir's theories -- is the romantic myth of male agency and autonomy, which is offered as a better pattern for women's lives without consideration for the fact that men's "self-sufficiency" invariably depends on a constant flow of cheap or unpaid labor from women and subordinate males.

Another subtext we might examine is the myth of a normal continuity of feminist consciousness. It seems entirely possible that women's sensitivity to the "woman problem" will wax and wane depending on the nature of the times, social and economic stressors and the visionaries and leaders available to pound the drum. The historic record suggests that women's progress is constant, but normally uneven. The dormancy of women's collective activism should in no way be taken as a sign that women are completely satisfied with the present circumstances, or that the matter of women's equality is settled.

For those of us who've taken up the work of theorizing a mothers' movement, Friedan and Beauvoir's classic analyses serve as an unnerving reminder that, a) no single theory can possibly offer a whole or complete agenda for social change because all theorists, being human, have biases and blind spots; and, b) theory and philosophy are ultimately forms of autobiography, because no matter how expansive our imagination or concern for the future, the meaning we ascribe to our theories and solutions is weighted by our particular histories, social realities, failures and dreams. I can't think of a single important or controversial work on motherhood and equality, past or present, that defies this equation.

Of course, I worry about my own biases and blind spots. I hope I'm not mistaken in my conviction that caregiving should be regarded as a primary human endeavor rather than simply "women's work," or my belief that motherhood and women's equality are completely reconcilable, or my theory that ingrained thinking about gender and human capacity is central to the motherhood problem. I hope I'm not wrong in sticking to my position that feminism is still one of the best tools we can use to understand and rectify our discontents as women and mothers. And I really hope my faith that the emerging mothers' movement has the potential to reach across the boundaries of race and class to address the true diversity of maternal experience and need is not misplaced. But above all, I hope I my perception of mothers' growing desire for change has some foundation in reality.

When they first sprout up, change narratives are like anything else new and untried: we have to hold them up to our lives to see if they fit. When educated, middle-class women -- and the daughters of educated, middle-class women -- held The Feminine Mystique up to their lives in 1963, it fit well enough that they decided to rethink their lives. Even today's generation of mothers can find elements in The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex that still fit; despite out best efforts, women's lives haven't grown that much in half a century. But today, we have the added perspective that comes from living the legacy of these ideas, and we can see the author's biases and blind spots more clearly -- which is why Lisa Belkin's "Opt Out Revolution" story and Linda Hirshman's "Homeward Bound" seemed inconsistent with what we feel and know.

But I don't think we can assume that feminism has run its course -- or that we have to pull back our ambitions to having freedom of choice rather than full citizenship -- simply because parts of Freidan's or Beauvoir's narratives still fit us like a glove. We should take it as evidence that there's unfinished work to be done, and that we still have an opportunity to make our own history.

Whether it's caused by action or inaction, social change is inescapable. I can absolutely guarantee you that fifty or one hundreds years from now, American mothers will be living in a different social world. It could be a great. It could be grim and dehumanizing. The lunatics might be running the asylum. But wouldn't it be nice if people who do the caring work of our society had an equal say in shaping that uncertain future?

"Love is a good thing"

But what will we use for a plan, what new myths will we need to construct atop the empty shells of our old illusions? I don't think we'll ever find a single perfect solution. "Choice" may not be the final framework, but women's lives and desires are too diverse and too complex for a one-size-fits-all mandate for change. Nor should we be satisfied to stop with achievable solutions -- such as the need for flexible and part time professional work -- that will advance the status and economic security of some mothers but fail to address the needs of others. The master plan for this project will have to be undogmatic and open-ended. At the same time, we're going to need to nail down some finite goals, build coalitions, and prepare for the long, slow slog of legislative activism. Maybe we don't have to call ourselves feminists, or womanists, or motherists, or whatever. Maybe we can just come together as caring people who believe there is a better way.

This much I can predict: our mothers' movement is going to look different from the women's movements that preceded it and those that will follow.

I'm going to leave the next-to-last word to historian Robyn Muncy, author of Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform 1890 -1935 (1991), who wrote this in response to Joan Walsh's commentary on "Feminism after Friedan:"

Feminists should not issue judgments against women who choose to work part-time or stay at home with their children when they have that choice. Love is a good thing, and the more we can make it the center of our lives the better. Moreover, Hirshman makes the rash claim that feminists have changed the workplace, which she represents as the realm of freedom and power, but not the family, which she represents as the realm of drudgery and servitude.

Feminism has not changed workplaces nearly enough. It may have opened workplaces to women, but it has not changed exploitive work cultures that require employees to make paid employment their only life commitment. That sort of work culture must be the target of feminist critique not the object of feminist desire as it seems to be for Hirshman. Creating work cultures that allow the best, most interesting and responsible work to be done at a pace that is humane and allows even of part-time commitment for both women and men must be a top priority for feminists. Reconstructing the workplace amounts to more even than paid maternity leaves, health care for childbirth, and day care: it requires creating expectations of workers that allow them a full life off the job as well as on.

Muncy says we are currently locked in a battle over the soul of feminism. That sounds about right to me. All I know is that I when I started writing this piece, I planned to write an overview of two different strains of feminism -- radical and mainstream -- that informed women's activism and ideology during the second wave. And once again, I ended up writing about revolution.

Judith Stadtman Tucker

mmo : march 2006


(1) In Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement, Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, editors (2000)

(2) In Unfinshed Work, Jody Heymann and Christopher Beem, editors, The New Press, 2005.

(3) As quoted in the introduction by Deidre Bair to the 1989 Vintage edition.

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