100 Years of Identity Crisis

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This flier, published in the early 20th century, takes the argument of the separate spheres and the post World War II generation (that women belong in the home) and uses it as an argument as to why women belong outside of the home as well.

Photo Credit: Women in the Home flier, created by the Woman Suffrage Party of the city of New York, 1897-1911, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain Certification

“[A]s the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.” (Friedan, p. 77)

I’ve been talking a lot in the last month or so about two historical concepts related to women and gender that were the inspiration for many of the stories and themes in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. They both come from Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The first is what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name,” an unidentifiable something that was wrong with the 1950s housewife whose life was supposed to be so fulfilling and so perfect. I wrote about that here. The other was the idea of the feminine mystique, an idealization of women in which their only destiny was as wives and mothers, which I discuss here

While I was reading Friedan’s book, I had a sense of déjà vu, like “um, haven’t I seen this stuff before?” In writing the stories in Lessons, it hit me why the characters were so familiar to me. It’s because the idea of the feminine mystique reminded me of the idea of the separate spheres I discussed a while back in this blog post. You might recall this concept (which originated in the 18th century but gained ground in the 19th century) was about women and men belonging in separate areas of life: men in the public sphere (politics, finance, law, etc) and women in the private sphere (home, church). The idea was that each gender fulfilled his/her destiny within that limited sphere and any man or woman venturing into the other’s sphere was considered improper at best, an abnormality at worst (like the New Woman caricatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where women were pictured in bloomers, smoking cigarettes, and standing over their poor, overworked husbands while the men washed the dishes wearing aprons). 

Similarly, women of the 1950s, especially American suburban housewives were told by everyone and everything around them that their one identity in life was as an ultra-feminine wife and mother and their place was in the home. But, like their Victorian sisters, they felt uneasy about this and that something was wrong with this picture. Friedan, who compares the  the 1950s housewife and the feminine mystique to the Victorian woman and sex, notes: 

“The image of a good woman by which Victorian ladies lived simply left out sex. Does the image by which modern American women live also leave something out, the proud and public image of the high-school girl going steady, the college girl in love, the suburban housewife with an up-and-coming husband and a station wagon full of children?” (Friedan, p. 24)

It is, in fact, what the ideal left out that encouraged the women’s suffragist movement to gain more support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually leading to legislative changes, specifically, the ratification of the 19th amendment in America in 1920. It was also partly Friedan’s ideas about the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name that led to the second-wave women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, sparked by slogan “the personal is political” which completely overturned the concept of the separate spheres by insisting there were in fact no separate spheres. Both were equal in weight for both genders.

Some of the women in the stories from Lessons have to contend with not only the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name, but also with the antiquated idea of the separate spheres. For example, in “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan’s husband-to-be, a medical student, teases her about her desire to see “something cultural” during a weekend visit to San Francisco. Culture was considered the public sphere in the 19th century and Susan’s attempts to enter it earn her well-meaning fiancé’s doubt and mockery nearly one hundred years later. 

To read more about Susan and the other women in the stories, you can buy Lessons From My Mother’s Life at a special preorder price here. If you’d like to read more about another character, Leanne, you can read this blog post.        

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Personal and The Political: “Two Sides of Life”

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Photo Credit:  xavigm99/Depositphotos.com       

One of the popular slogans of the second wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s was “the personal is political”. The main idea behind this slogan fits in with the idea of the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the time, where women opened up about their personal experiences in order to gain insights into the larger picture of women’s social, psychological, and political oppression. It’s true when women address issues that affect them (even today, when our issues are different from those of our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers), things tend to get personal.

One of the stories in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, integrates both the personal and the political. It’s one of the few semi-biographical pieces I’ve written. It includes both physical and psychological elements that come from my life, but, on the more political side, it touches upon two themes Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, discussed which sparked the women’s movement.

The story didn’t begin as this complex tapestry of public and private. In fact, it was one of those writerly moments where an interesting anecdote my mother related to me became the germ of a story. Years ago, I was chatting with my mom on the phone, and she told me an interesting incident that happened for her recent birthday dinner which, living on the other side of the world, I couldn’t attend. My dad took her to a nice restaurant, as he usually does on her birthday, and when the check arrived, the server informed them the bill had been paid. It turned out my father, who was working as a quality control consultant at the time, befriended one of his assistants whom had recommended an elegant restaurant for him to take my mom on her birthday. The young man, who met my mom and been impressed with her warmth and vivacity (as many people usually are), then surprised my parents by paying the restaurant bill.

I wrote the story as a contemporary work of fiction and posted it for a while as a freebie on my website. When I made the shift last year from contemporary to historical fiction, I took the story down, meaning to revise it. Toward the end of last year, when I began examining my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, in preparation for this upcoming second edition, I removed the title story (as it didn’t fit in with the themes I had planned for the new edition) and went searching for another story to take its place. I realized the story I had written about my mother’s birthday dinner (then, titled “A Birthday Gift”) would fit in nicely with the new collection.

I kept the incident of the birthday dinner and the paid bill, but when I reworked the story, these moved to the background while the story became more about the relationship between the protagonist Leanne and her husband of twenty years, Calvin. Leanne, like many suburban housewives of the mid-20th century, had been indoctrinated into the feminine mystique and, like many of these women, had become frustrated by what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name”. The story opens on the day of her forty-second birthday. Her husband Calvin (an intelligent but emotionally distant professor — somewhat modeled after my father) “suggests” she head on over to one of their neighbors (Paul, a young man who is Calvin’s lab assistant) and offer to help with Paul’s six-year-old son’s birthday party. Leanne agrees, though reluctantly. The party proves to be a turning point for her, as she bonds unexpectedly with Paul’s wife, Arlene, who represents a familiar sort of young woman we see today, but who was a anomaly in the 1960s: The woman who was making a name for herself in her chosen field while juggling the role of wife and mother. Leanne, like many women brought up on the feminine mystique, judges Arlene at first, but comes to realize her judgement is misplaced:

“Arlene says women today can have a career and a family too, if they just make sacrifices and balance everything correctly,” he said. “It’s what she’s trying to do, and so are most of the girls who graduated with her at Mills College.” He looked at her again. “Do you think a woman who has a job can’t be a good wife and mother too?”

She felt the breeze around her turn into waves, returning the strange chill she had felt that morning. The noise of happy children dimmed, replaced by the loud caw of birds. She realized they were standing under a nest where baby birds chirped out their starvation. She saw the head of the mother, its grim beak set and its gorging eyes searching the ground. She recognized the basic instinct of a mother on her children.

“I think any woman could do anything, if she sets her mind to it,” she said softly. “And I can see Arlene has her mind set on it. I’ve no right to judge her, and I’m sorry I did.”

“Oh, I don’t blame you,” he said. “I do the same thing myself, when I’ve seen her going into the den and locking the door, and Arnold looking after her like a lost puppy.”

“She has no choice.” The veil of hostility that had been weighing over Leanne’s eyes lifting, along with the chattering of baby birds. “She wants to be more than what women of my generation were.”

Later, Leanne sees how she and Arlene are both trapped in the same cage of feminine expectations, though their lives are very different. They are, in fact, the two sides of life for women in the mid-20th century.

The story takes place prior to the women’s movement era, but there are sparks of what would drive women to fight for their place in the world beyond home and family in this story and in others in the collection. For my mother, there was no Arlene, but after my siblings and I left home and built our own lives, she found her own interests and activities. However, my mom had the benefit of the times on her side. I don’t think anyone can dispute the late 20th century was kinder and more progressive toward women than the years forty or fifty years prior to it.

If you want to read more of “Two Sides of Life”, you can do so when Lessons of My Mother’s Life comes out in March 2020. More about the book can be found here.

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The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

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.     

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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Cover Reveal for Lessons From My Mother’s Life

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Photo Credit: stokkete (Luciano de polo)/Depositphotos.com  

I’m so excited to be revealing the cover for the second edition of my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, now titled Lessons From My Mother’s Life!

Why the title change? Because in revising and expanding this new edition, I threw out some of the stories that didn’t fit into the collection with its new theme, namely, the feminine mystique and other ideas related to the 1950s housewife. One of those stories was “Gnarled Bones,” the title story of the first edition. I took this story out, so, obviously, I had to find another title. 

I hit upon Lessons From My Mother’s Life from my reading of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. In the book, Friedan talks about the lessons previous generations of women had to teach women of the 1950s, pointing out how the mothers of the 1950s American suburban housewife did not have the burden of the feminine mystique on their shoulders and were, in fact, fighting for their rights as women and getting out into the workforce to show their worth in roles other than wife and mother. Since many of the stories in the second edition take place in the 1950s, this era represents the mothers and grandmothers of more modern generations and their lives do, indeed, have much to teach us. I also talk a little bit in the Foreword of the book about how these themes and stories relate more closely to my life and my mother’s life. So the title seemed fitting.

The preorder for this book will be up very soon. In the meantime, you can read more about the book here

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The Era of “Occupation: Housewife”

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Photo Credit: 1950s happy housewife in the kitchen cooking, uploaded 24 May 2011 by Ethan: SportSuburban/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In an interview she did in 1977, author and godmother of the second wave feminist movement, Betty Friedan, mentions, a little tongue-in-cheek, the idea of writing in the census blank “Occupation: Housewife” when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan defines this decade as the era of “Occupation: Housewife.” Many women who had gone into the work force due to the shortage of men in the 1940s had, in the post-war era, retreated back to the home. As I explain in my blog post about the feminine mystique, women in mid-20th century America were sold a bill of goods about their identities and their purpose in life as wives and mothers. “Occupation: Housewife” was an extension of that.

In the 1950s, the role of housewife was taken very seriously, so seriously it seemed as if outside forces were working together to convince women the only road to happiness was as a housewife. Icons like Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver, Father Knows Best’s Margaret Anderson, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Harriet Nelson became the epitome of how women should be and act. Women’s magazines like Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping not only carried advice for housewives, but included fiction focused on the housewife heroine. Guides like the one mentioned in this article told women how they should treat their husbands like gods and take care of their children so that no one could blame them if their kids turned out less than perfect (a very popular thing, thanks to Freud). Lest women realize (as many did, according to Friedan) they were more than just a cleaning machine and a servant to their husband and kids, advertisers glorified housework to the point where women would believe the world would fall apart if they didn’t retreat into their homes and bake a cake every day.

Putting this in historical context, it’s easy to see where the obsession with selling women on the idea that their only worth was in their housewifery skills came from. As I mentioned above, women were going out into the work force, some for the very first time, during World War II when workers were needed, and male labor was scarcer. After the war ended, the expectation was that women would retreat from the work force to make room for men returning from the front. In addition, the psychological atmosphere of post-war America was one of a  return to a life of stability, conformity, and traditional roles. All of these gel with the idea of women taking care of the home and making their life’s work “Occupation: Housewife.”    

Being a housewife, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, since it takes a lot of thought, skill, organization, prioritizing, and patience. In our modern sensibility, we know many women would be proud to write on the census blank “Occupation: Housewife.” But the difference between housewives today and housewives seventy years ago is that today’s housewives, for the most part, are not being told their worth lies in how sparkling they can wax their kitchen floor, or how many of their kids’ soccer games they attend.

And therein lies the problem: The 1950’s housewife was made to feel as if this was all she ever would accomplish. Even if she had other aspirations and dreams, they were only trivial compared to her “real work” as a housewife. Friedan points out, “[N]o matter how elaborate, ‘Occupation: housewife’ is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…” (p. 294). 

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, features many 1950s and early 1960s housewives who would put “Occupation: Housewife” on the census bureau questionnaire. Some would do it gladly (such as the young bride-to-be in the story “Fumbling Toward Freedom”), and some more reluctantly (such as the heroine of “Mother of Mischief”). But all the protagonists, whether current or future housewives, recognize their worth lies in something more than cleaning, washing, and picking up the kids from school. They feel, like many of the subjects Friedan spoke with who were the inspiration for her book, that something isn’t quite right, that the picture-perfect images of housewives that glare out at them on their TV screens, glossy women’s magazines, and billboards are incongruent with who they are. This moment of epiphany is what drives many of them in the stories.

Get more information on Lessons, coming in March 2020, here.

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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