Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Until now, most of my blog posts have related to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me, and a lot of my fiction takes place during these time periods.
But I’m interested in other eras as well, especially those relevant to women’s social, psychological, and political position. One of these time periods was the mid-20th century, a breeding ground for the second wave feminist movement which came in the late 1960s. My upcoming book is a second edition of my first published book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, and the five stories in this collection are set in the 1950s and early 1960s. All the stories were inspired by Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, a revolutionary way of looking at femininity at that time.
Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this concept to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.
The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is nothing else outside of these that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:
“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)
I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.
You’ve probably heard that the The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960’s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:
The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)
From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it in 1963, when it was first published, and in the years to follow.
Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, as any seminal work on gender politics would. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban-living. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement — that it was addressing the needs of white middle-class women. The needs of women of color, working class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were left out. In fact, the third wave feminist movement, which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s, was started to rectify this situation, as it strives to include all women and has earned the name “global feminism.” In addition, the book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was somehow inferior to being a career women rubbed a lot of women (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.
My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, brings to light fictional representations of the feminine mystique (among other themes). The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one away or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds they show her the consequences of letting love define who she is, so that her rush to get married at so young an age and quit college to become a housewife and mother, becomes less enticing. On the other side of the spectrum, Leanne, in “Two Sides of Life” is a seasoned mother of two grown children whose surprising bond with the wife of her husband’s lab assistant causes her to rethink her identity embodied in the feminine mystique.
Lessons From My Mother’s Life will be out on March 29, 2020. To learn more about the book, please visit this page.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.