June 2003

Veronica Bond

Deconstructing the Mystique

I have to admit, the first time I ever heard of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, it was during the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Patrick Verona insists on finding a copy to replace the one that he's lost while Cat Stratford, keen to his efforts to win back her affections, rummages through a pile of books and slaps the paperback version against his chest. Because I loved Cat's character - her determination, her self-reliance, and her love of books - I wanted to read whatever she mentioned. Plath? Check. Brontk? Check. Friedan? Check.

When I began reading the book, I was, foremost, taken with the tone. Friedan writes as if she were just any other woman, any other mother, any other wife. She writes as if her dilemma, reconciling the belief of motherhood and wifehood as feminine destiny with her desire for something more, were felt among scores of women. She writes this way and it is effective because these things were true. For the most part, Friedan was a suburban housewife whose main focuses were her children and her husband, whose identity was shaped by these people. It is because she, herself, felt the discrepancy between what she desired and what she, as a woman, was allowed to do that she began work on this book.

Friedan defines the mystique as the belief that a woman's highest achievement is to fulfill her own femininity, in short, to become the best woman she can possibly be. That would be all well and good, except that women were not allowed to define that femininity for themselves. The mystique functioned on a biology-is-destiny model, limiting women to the roles of mother and caretaker. This limitation seems to have lessened since 1963, but it persists among women who have pursued prestigious careers and feel that those careers are threatened by requesting maternity leave. It's a subtle threat that still forces women to choose between motherhood and their careers. For the women about whom Friedan writes, the choice was made for them - few were allowed to strive for anything beyond childcare and general family management. Consequently, the frustrations that accompanied the mystique filled their lives with a feeling of discontent. "A woman today who has no goal," Friedan writes, "no purpose, no ambition patterning her days into the future, making her stretch and grow beyond that small score of years in which her body can fill its biological function is committing a kind of suicide." Forty years later, that statement remains true.

What is ironic is that women were believed to have been liberated years earlier. Because these women were relatively free to have sexual wants and needs, as opposed to their Victorian counterparts, a liberated sexuality was thought sufficient for a liberated self. The idea originated with Freud and his belief that all hysteria and neuroses were the results of sexual repression. But when women's dissatisfaction with their lives persisted, psychologists resorted to Freud's notion of penis-envy and labeled these women as "[men] with something missing." The desire for a penis became the desire for a child, specifically a son who, "brings the longed-for penis with him," thus enabling the woman to transfer all her ambitions onto him. "The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women's troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love." But why then, I imagine Friedan would have asked, are men allowed to be doctors and politicians and entrepreneurs instead of finding their liberation and fulfillment in the donation of sperm? "Did women want these freedoms because they wanted to be men? Or did they want them because they also were human?"

It's a testament to the efficacy of The Feminine Mystique that many girls today don't see college as an option, but as a logical step following high school. But for those women who did pursue an education, colleges did nothing to dispel the mystique and, in fact, worked to perpetuate it. It was education that was believed to cause women's "role crisis," the "discontinuity in cultural conditioning," allowing them to believe they had the freedom to do what men could do instead of preparing them for their roles as women. Women desirous of higher education were encouraged to pursue the social sciences, as opposed to the hard sciences, and the applied or minor arts. Even home economics and domestic sciences were considered masculine, as they were taught at a professional level. The much misinterpreted results of the Kinsey report added fuel to anti-education argument, claiming that a greater instance of sexual dysfunction was found in women of higher education. Though the full results revealed quite the opposite, that the number of women reaching orgasm was greater among the upper-educated, little effort was made to make the correction known.

Nonetheless, education, insists Friedan, is the key to overcoming the mystique. Throughout her numerous interviews with women she found that higher education, indeed, produced greater frustration, "but only when [they] did not use it." In her chapter on the "new life plan for women," she proposes the idea that women don't have to make the choice between marriage and career - the false choice of the mystique - but instead realize that they both may be obtained with sufficient planning - "The most powerful weapon of the feminine mystique is the argument that she rejects her husband and her children by working outside the home." Housework must not be seen as one's entire career but for what it is - a chore. Similarly, marriage should not be what causes women to feel their place within society - they must find it for themselves through their own work. "The feminine mystique has made higher education for women seem suspect, unnecessary and even dangerous. But I think that education, and only education, has saved, and can continue to save, American women from the greater dangers of the feminine mystique."

Education may be the key to fulfillment, but the question remains, how do women go about finding it? How do they change their already set and habituated lives in order to find themselves? There may be less emphasis on women as homemakers today, but how do women reconcile their career- and family-oriented desires? Friedan doesn't answer this question, nor does she answer the majority of the questions she poses, something I found wearisome at times. Nor do I think Friedan hit the mark on all of her points. I completely disagree with chapter 11's attribution of male homosexuality to overbearing mothers inundated with the mystique. The argument is entirely displaced as she is making a nurture-over-nature claim that, while similar to, is wholly separate from her fundamental thesis. Whether or not Friedan is homophobic is to be debated, but it remains that this line of reasoning does not belong here. Nevertheless, the questions she posed throughout the book were good and needed to be asked - I suspect she just didn't have the answers. I don't think we fully have the answers now.

I have no doubt that the mystique continues to exist today. Every time I watch Everybody Loves Raymond, I am uneasy with Deborah, Ray's wife as played by Patricia Heaton. Here is a woman, a suburban housewife and mother of three children, whose husband refuses to take part in the housework, rarely makes efforts to aide in the upbringing of his children, and is unsympathetic whenever she expresses the desire to do anything solely for herself. The squabbles that ensue between the two is the premise of this Emmy-winning show. Why do people find this funny? Is it because it continues to reflect reality? True, not all women may want to pursue careers outside the home and I imagine they might become quite angered with Friedan's push away from wifehood and motherhood, but that is precisely the point: Not all women are any one thing or want any one thing at all. It's the opportunity to decide whom we are and what we want to do that is important. That's the objective of this treatise, not to demean motherhood or the sanctity of marriage, but to demand the same rights and leisures afforded to men throughout history. That objective is what gave Friedans' work its import in 1963 and it's what women continue to desire decades later.

Sometimes biology is destiny - at 5'3" I doubt I could ever become a firefighter or even a flight attendant. But if I met the physical and the mental requirements and had the desire to be either, I should hope that I could. Gender should not be a requirement, but looking toward the business world and comparing the disproportionate number of male to female CEO's, it's obvious that it still is. For as long as the threat of that requirement exists and as long as women feel unable to choose between wifehood, motherhood, and their own dreams, The Feminine Mystique will be indispensable.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393322572
512 pages

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