This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.
I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name.
This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.
That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.
The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment.
But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it.
This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.
The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.
If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.