Is The Feminine Mystique Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

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Photo Credit: Book cover for The Feminine Mystique, 1984, Del/Laurel reissue edition: VCU CNS/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

“We don’t need feminism anymore.”

How many times have I heard that one? And usually by twenty-something young ladies who, bless them, have never experienced the kind of oppression older women have and whose mothers have never experienced it. 

I shouldn’t say “never” really because all women (regardless of age, ethnicity, gender identity, etc) have experienced some kind of oppression. A writer friend recently posted a meme to Facebook on all the things women couldn’t do in the first half of the 20th century, including serving on a jury and own a credit card. When we look at history, that list of what women couldn’t achieve grows exponentially. Think how 19th-century women couldn’t even own property that was left to them. Henry James’ novella Washington Square is all about a young lady (considered “plain” and not very socially inept) who is wooed by a handsome, charming young man who wants to marry her — you guessed it — for her money. Her father threatens to leave his money to worthy charities. Notice he doesn’t say “I’ll leave the money to my daughter and only to my daughter.” Why? Because even if he did, the money would revert to her husband’s control because she wouldn’t be allowed to own it (money is, or was in the 19th century, property).

Last year, when I published my post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, I wrote this blog post about Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique. I had read snippets of the book in grad school but it was only after reading the entire book that it made a huge impression on me. Friedan’s feminine mystique (that fairytale woman who was born to be a mother, wife, caretaker — in other words, whose entire being was defined in her relationships to others and how she could serve those others) resonated with me because these women were my mother’s generation. I saw so much of my mother’s life in the feminine mystique (hence the title of my collection) and the frustration and rage and guilt she experienced as a woman (as opposed to her role as mother, wife, nurse, and caretaker). Now, at the age of seventy-eight, my mom still struggles with being the perfect wife and mother. 

We might ask, is the younger generation right? Didn’t we put the feminine mystique to rest in the 1970s and 1980s during the second-wave feminist movement? Aren’t women doing more than ever now, no longer expected to devote all their lives to home and family if they don’t choose to? Aren’t women making great strides in all areas of life (politics, society, economics, etc.) and in all corners of the globe? 

Perhaps herein lies the problem. There is no question we’re making strides everywhere and we are showing our strength in so many different ways. But we are also still expected to take on the feminine mystique and prioritize it above everything else. As Hanna Rosin points out in this article, if the goal of the women’s movement was to redefine women’s roles and women’s identity, we’ve really only added to them.

This is essential to understanding how the feminine mystique has surfaced during the COVID pandemic, more so than perhaps in the past few decades. This article talks about the social safety net (the place where family care happens) and how the pandemic has only increased the expectations for women (the article refers mostly to mothers, but I expand this to all women because we’ve been expected to be the caregivers to everyone, not just our kids) to create that place of shelter so many of us have needed during this time. Stay-at-home orders increased the burden on many women to create that safe space for children, husbands, parents, and others. Many women also lost their jobs during the pandemic, leaving the part of them that pursued financial stability and (hopefully) professional success empty. 

We can’t quite say we’re in the same spot with the feminine mystique in the 2020s as we were in the 1950s. Many women discovered their creativity during the pandemic with the slew of creative courses and Zoom videos (paid and free) offered through social media groups and on the internet. As a writer, I saw a huge increase in writing-related online events (including “writing sprints” where people get together on Zoom and just write). These are quite different from the feminist consciousness-raising groups that saw many women through their frustrations and rage in the 1960s and 1970s but perhaps they are also more positive because women had the opportunity to strengthen their identities and get support for their artistic passions through these events.

I sincerely hope one day we will be able to say “we don’t need feminism anymore” and “the feminine mystique doesn’t exist”. But for now, I think it’s safe to say we still have far to go when it comes to opening up our hearts and souls to all that we can do as women and how we define ourselves as women and as human beings.

If you want to read stories about suburban women in the 1950s escaping the feminine mystique, read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life here.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

How would you answer someone who told you, “The feminine mystique doesn’t exist in 2021?” Tell me in the comments!

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An Eclectic Collection: The Films of Robert Wise

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Photo Credit: Film producer and director Robert Wise at the premiere of Air America, 1990, photo by Alan Light: Bebe735/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 2.0

Sometimes opportunities come up that are almost a crime to pass up (and y’all know my head is in crime right now with the launch of my Paper Chase Mysteries this year). When author and film historian J. R. Jordan contacted me and asked me to review the revised edition of his book, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition), I jumped at the chance.

As many of you know, my first love is classic literature, but I have an equal passion for classic film. I have my favorite classic film directors. Robert Wise is on the top of that list as well. Wise was one of those down-to-earth Hollywood figures who didn’t create a lot of unnecessary drama on the film set. As his nephew, Douglas E. Wise says in the introduction, 

“As a director, Uncle Bob’s demeanor and personality were quite even. There was no temper. There was no ego. There was no flexing of power or anything else. He was simply a nice guy and everybody, cast and drew alike, admired him.” (Location 111)

Jordan matches Wise’s personality as a film director with the tone and voice of this book. He writes a no-nonsense, comprehensive guide to forty of Wise’s films, showing the impressive array of genres and approaches to story that made Wise such a talented and respected director. As a historical fiction author and history lover, I especially appreciate how Jordan contextualizes many of the films within the psyche of the moviegoers at the time. 

Photo Credit: Simone Simon and Kurt Kreuger in Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), publicity still, cropped, author unknown, RKO Pictures: Ce-CilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

For example, Jordan explains how Wise’s decision to direct Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) was a controversial one because of the film’s subject matter and timing. The film takes place during the war between Prussia (a kingdom of German until the end of World War I) and France in the 19th century and portrays the Prussians as victorious over the French. As Jordan points out, when the film was made, “much of France was under Nazi occupation [and resentment] of the German government grew stronger with each day that passed..” (Location 328). In this atmosphere, producers were nervous that a film showing the triumph of Germany over France might not go over well with the public. Wise’s solution was to emphasize the patriotism of the film’s plot and the main character so that, although the “enemy” won the war historically, they lost morally and emotionally. 

What really struck me about the book was how its well-researched discussions of Wise’s films really showed the eclectic nature of his career. In his sixty-odd year career, Wise seems to have directed every film genre out there: horror, drama, film noir, musicals, sci-fi, and everything in between. Having said that, the book makes clear Wise did have certain periods in his life where he directed films in one genre more than in others. For example, the 1940s saw horror films such as The Curse of the Cat People and 1945’s The Body Snatchers (one of my personal favorites). The late 1940s and 1950s were the golden eras of film noir, and Wise made his share, including The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). And no one can forget Wise directed two of the most iconic and unforgettable blockbuster musicals of our time in the 1960s: West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Later in his career, science fiction films came into the Wise catalog with films like The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1978).

The book Robert Wise: The Movies (Revised Edition) does exactly what the title implies — it gives readers an understanding and appreciation of the films of one of America’s greatest and sadly overlooked directors. It’s a great book for any classic film lover, not just for fans of Robert Wise and his films.

Works Cited:

Jordan, J. R. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition). BearManor Media. 2020. Kindle digital file.

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Defending June Cleaver

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Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley (June Cleaver) with Tony Dow (Wally Cleaver) and Jerry Mathers (Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver) from the television series Leave It to Beaver, 9 July 1959, ABC Television: We hope/Wikimedis Commons/PD US no notice

In light of my book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, that came out last week, I wanted to revisit one of the most iconic TV characters of the 1950s.

It recently came to my attention that, while the name June Cleaver conjures up very specific images in the minds of many Americans (of an older generation, especially), not everyone knows who June is. June was the mom on the family television show that aired between 1957 and 1963 called Leave It to Beaver. The show was about a typical American suburban family of the 1950s and encompassed all of the stereotypes we associate with the post-war nuclear family: a father who has a good job and is the undisputed “head of the family,” a mother who epitomizes the feminine mystique, and two smart, good-natured kids (in this case, two boys, the younger of which is nicknamed Beaver and forms the central character of the series). The show was a huge hit in the Occupation: Housewife era because it offered Americans who were recovering from the horrors of World War II exactly the kind of life they wanted — stable, family-oriented, and prosperous.

June Cleaver was exactly the kind of woman Betty Friedan would have considered the poster child for the feminine mystique (interestingly, Friedan never mentions June, though that may be because the show was still running at the time of the book’s publication). Her role in life is that of a housewife and mother and she has no desire do be anything beyond that. Her life revolves around her husband, two sons and her house, which is always immaculate and polished. She even presents the kind of 1950s housewife in the advertisements, complete with high heels and pearls, which she wears even when she’s doing housework.

But, just as with many television and film characters, there is more to June than meets the eye. One of the most interesting scenes of Beaver finds June arguing against the rather myopic opinions of her young son, Beaver, about women and intelligence. The scene is fascinating because Beaver, probably about eleven or twelve here, brings forth some of the views in the 1950s that Friedan outlines in her book, The Feminine Mystique: that intelligence for women wasn’t an issue because they only had to get married and have families, and if they did work, they had “jobs” (and highly feminized ones at that) and not “careers.” June counters this by reminding Beaver that, nowadays, women can have careers and their intelligence is as good as any man’s. It’s significant that the episode aired in 1960, when women were beginning to wake up to the fact that the post-war image of the feminine mystique might not be serving them well as individuals.

Photo Credit: Photo of Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver from the television series Leave it to Beaver, 15 September 1958, ABC Television: Crakkerjakk/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice  

June also was a match for her husband, Ward. If June was the poster child for the 1950s woman, Ward epitomized a lot of what American men were expected to be after World War II: ambitious, strong-willed, and forceful. He’s in no way a bully but let’s just say, we know where The Beaver got his opinion of women in the previously mentioned episode, as this clip tells us. Although June defers to Ward in most important decisions in the show, she doesn’t do so meekly. She has her own opinions and voices them.

And just a word about June’s pearls and high heels. These things were part of what made June Cleaver an icon and also won the character a lot of criticism from the second wave feminist movement, because, they reasoned, women were not dolls to be on display all the time. But, as Barbara Billingsly, the actress who played June, points out here, there were actually very practical reasons for both the pearls and heels. She wore the necklace to hide a hollow in her neck that was causing an unseemly shadow on film, and the high heels were because, throughout the six years Beaver aired, both actor Jerry Mathers (who played The Beaver) and Tony Dow (who played older brother Wally) grew, as boys do, and both became quite tall. So she had to wear the heels to keep up with their growth spurts!

You can check out more about how women lived in post-World War II America in my new book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, here.       

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Lessons From My Mother’s Life Release Day Blitz!

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

Title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction/Short Fiction

Release Date: March 29, 2020

It was the 1950s. The war was over and women could go back to being happy housewives. But did they really want to?

Women in the 1950s should have been contented to live a Leave it to Beaver life. They had it all: generous husbands with great jobs, comfortable suburban homes with nice yards, two cars, and communities with like-minded families. Their days were filled with raising well-behaved children, cleaning the house, baking cookies, and attending PTA meetings and church events.

They should have been fulfilled. Women’s magazines told them so. Advertisers told them so. Doctors and psychologists told them so. Some were. But some weren’t.

In the 1950s, women were sold a bill of goods about who they were and who they should be as women. Some bought it. But some didn’t.

These stories are about the women who didn’t. They didn’t buy that there wasn’t more to life than making a happy home. Except they didn’t know they weren’t buying until something forced them see the cracks in their seemingly perfect lives.

A teenage bride sees her future mirrored in Circe’s twisted face. A woman’s tragic life serves as a warning about the dangers of too much maternal devotion. And the lives of two women intersect during two birthday parties, changing both of them. These and other moving tales of strength, discovery, and hope are about our mothers and grandmothers and the lessons their lives have to teach us.

This book is the second edition of my 2017 short story collection, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. This edition has been extensively revised, the stories changed and expanded, and the context moved from the present day to the 1950s and 1960s. This edition also includes a Preface and a bonus chapter from The Specter, the first book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series.

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B084Y7GDV9

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B084Y7GDV9

B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lessons-from-my-mothers-life-tam-may/1136487332

Apple iBooks (iTunes): https://books.apple.com/us/book/lessons-from-my-mothers-life/id1499562199

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/lessons-from-my-mother-s-life

Excerpt

She rose, slipping her hands from his and placing them in the pockets of her dress so he wouldn’t see them shaking. She looked out the window where the sea had disappeared for curvy mountains. “Isn’t it wonderful how you only have to travel on a railroad track to reach a new place, a new world, even?”

“It’s not enough,” he said in an almost brutal voice. “I’ve been on many train tracks to many new places and new worlds. It’s like the living body and the living soul. One without the other kills them both.”

She took a breath. “You mean your body can be in a different place, but if your soul is the same, you’ll always be back where you started?”

“Something like that.”

Her legs felt as fragile as matches as she left the drawing room and made her way down the aisle and into the observation car. She saw that Bea and Carla were both dozing in chairs near the center of the car. She crept past the resting heads and soft snoring people to where the observation section gathered like a cup at the edge of the car. There was one oblong little window that stared right ahead into the vast space of mountainous ranges and gray-blue skies. She watched as the train moved forward, leaving behind her dead soul.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes fiction characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. A revised and expanded second edition of this book is now published under a new title: Lessons From My Mother’s Life. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, came out in June of 2019, and the second book, False Fathers, is also now available. Book 3 (The Claustrophobic Heart) and Book 4 (Dandelion Children) will be out in 2020. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. 

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.

Social Media Links

Website: http://tammayauthor.com/ 

Blog: https://tammayauthor.com/category/thedreambookblog

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Facebook Readers Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/tamsdreamersRG/ 

Facebook Blog Page: https://www.facebook.com/thedreambookblog/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tammayauthor

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/

Instragram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16111197.Tam_May

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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The Feminine Mystique

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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

Last year, most of my work focused on 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.

But last year, I decided I wanted a redo of the first book I ever published and the book evolved into a historical short story collection that takes place during the post-WWII era. The stories and their resilient protagonists were inspired by the social and psychological history of women in the 1950s. The one that made me aware of the paradox of the “happy housewife” which is so prevalent a theme in the stories of Lessons From My Mother’s Life was Betty Friedan.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this paradox to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s, especially housewives just like herself. 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 little else outside these social constructs 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 The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s. 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 when it first came out in 1963.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, just like any other seminal work on gender politics. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement which often addressed the needs of white middle-class women first. The issues relating to women of color, working-class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were either put on the back burner or left out entirely (until women of color and lesbians spoke out and began to form their own groups). The third-wave feminist movement which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s (and still going on today), rectified this situation, as it strives to include all women’s issues and has earned the name “global feminism.” 

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 not enough for any woman rubbed a lot of housewives (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life contains fictional representations of the feminine mystique. 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 way or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student in love and 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 in them a message about the consequences of letting love define who you are. The message both entices and frightens her.

To learn more about this book, which reached #1 on the Amazon charts, please visit this page.    

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do. Here’s the 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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