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