Feminine Mystique–Revisited

Hi Letha,

I appreciated so much your discussion of the many forms of violence–especially verbal violence. I know a lot of women (and men) have been in relationships with verbal shaming and abuse, and I think it is incredibly important to talk about.

I want to pick up my letter, though, not with our discussion on violence, but rather with the last point you made: your mention of the new book that is out on the The Feminine Mystique. (Our readers can go here to listen to an NPR interview about the book, A Strange Stirring.)

Then and Now

Letha, I think The Feminine Mystique has been a good marker for me in my career as a feminist. When I first picked up the book, I was suspicious of it. I wrote in the margin of page one: “Sensing my own suspicion. Have I internalized the media’s depiction of feminists?”

The book surprised me. In particular, I didn’t expect Friedan to give so much attention to ideas about what makes a family healthy. She was promoting women’s rights, but she was not (in my reading) demoting the importance of families and parenting at all. Rather, she was saying that a women’s role ought not be defined by her role as a mother.

I was initially excited about Friedan’s ideas and how well thought through they seemed. Reading her was a marking point in helping me claim the word “feminist.” I realized I didn’t know a lot about what feminists actually wrote and said. What I thought I knew about them was actually based on stereotypes in the media, so Friedan helped grow my understanding in significant ways. I liked the ways in which she went about talking about women’s rights.

However, I have to be honest. Now when I re-read this book, I don’t have the same enthusiastic response because I don’t really see Friedan writing about “women” at all.  I see her writing about white, middle-class, heterosexual women. And while I still appreciate her contribution to the lives of millions of women, I am just aware that my thinking has grown and evolved since I read her.  (I know I have written about my critique of Friedan in the past on our blog, but I wanted to say a bit more, since she has come up in our conversation again because of the new book on her.)

I think this process of loving a book and then not being able to identify with it  5 years later happens for all of us. Certain books feel tremendously important to us; they help us develop our nascent ideas and coax our intuitions into words. And then, years later, we can appreciate the book that got us thinking and helped us along our path, but we now have new ways of critiquing the very book that originally got us started. The Feminine Mystique is like that for me.

When I re-read the first page today, what confronts me the most is Friedan’s lack of awareness about her class privilege. She writes of the silent angst suburban women feel doing household things like matching slipcovers, cooking gourmet snails, and building swimming pools! These images only work for women who have lots of access to resources.  Her, overall point, however, is a good one–women should be encouraged to live into all the aspects of who they are, including having careers. It’s just, one of the “problems with no name” in Friedan’s writing is that encoded in her language is an assumption about who the category of “women” includes. She says she is talking about “women,” but she is really talking about middle and upper class, white, heterosexual women.

Gosh, in 1963, African-American women were facing issues Friedan doesn’t even come close to touching (like the right to vote, or the murders carried out by the KKK). And poor women were not in angst about how unfulfilled they felt cooking gourmet snails. And while many suburban women wanted the right to work outside the home, many poor women have never had the option of being at home. We can also think of the thousands of women from poorer countries who have moved to the U.S. in recent decades to nanny for families here (usually, white, upper-class families), in order to have money to send home to their own children back home.

“Women” as a Category

The real problem, then, in my current reading of Friedan, is not simply that she talks about the lives of white, upper-class women, but rather that she assumes that “women”=white, upper-class women. That her assumption is encoded more than overtly stated is the crux of the problem.

I understand that is where her consciousness was at the time. I also understand that all of our consciousness is evolving, and my generation has had the privilege to learn from those like Friedan as we grow our ideas. I don’t mean to state my critique here ungraciously.

And in fact, the same issue I am critiquing with Friedan is more than common in a lot of feminist writing of women of my generation. Too often, it is women with privilege and resources who have access to promoting ideas about “women’s issues.” I have read a lot of  writing about “women’s” issues and controversial topics—from abortion to co-parenting to health care—that seem to leave out all economic analysis. I am utterly befuddled when I read such articles.

It’s as though the writer of such an article never had to think about what it’s like when there is $14 in the bank account. I don’t know if things were different in your generation, but I know many young adults who have always had abundant resources at their disposal; whereas, I feel as though most people of my parents’ or grandparents’ generation at least lived through a time of financial struggle. I think that times of financial struggle for young people shapes awareness and character. If one has never had such a time, it becomes hard to identity with the majority of people on this planet whose decisions and lives are shaped by whether or not they have access to resources.

Growing and Evolving

Letha, you have known me during a period of time when my ideas–and hopefully my consciousness–has grown and shifted. And, I hope to keep growing and shifting my ideas. I am aware that what I write today I will look back on and critique! The thought scares me a bit. I have lots of writing out there that I wrote years ago that lacks a lot of understanding of how issues of justice intersect. So, I make my comments here with (hopefully) a posture of humility. I just really want to press toward understanding the integration of all justice issues. I know many people are working toward understanding integration; I also know that many writers of 2nd wave feminism (like yourself) were always writing about integration. As we have talked about, it’s not as though my generation discovered intersectionality! (Even though sometimes we 3rd wavers pretend that we did.)

Well, Letha, that’s all for now. It’s rainy and cozy here in New Haven–the perfect day to remind me of Seattle. I am going to read and get ready for class now.

Kimberly

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