More feminine mystique: Betty Friedan likes to complain (Chapters 3-4)

I’ve gotten through chapters 3-9 of the Feminine Mystique and my big takeaway is that Betty Friedan’s team won a lot of battles but in a very real sense lost the war. I continue to be baffled at how seriously her whining is taken, though. She admits, for example, that almost nobody, male or female, who could pursue a PhD does.

Then again,  if I could I would ask her “Why should we have raft after raft of PhDs?” Women dominate PhDs as it is now, due to technological advancements from men who overwhelmingly didn’t pursue PhDs (most PhDs women get are online and in things like Public Policy and Education). And all it means is that people find the PhD to be even more disconnected from real intellect and just another certification with higher social status than, say, a Project Management certificate due to historical reasons.

Chapter 3 isn’t just about the sads Friedan has about not enough PhD astronaut girls, though.  It also delves into broader concerns from Friedan about how college women are not going to “use their education”. This feminist and Marxist concern ultimately led to the professionalization of motherhood, complete with classes and an entire industry of what we now call momblogs (but which were published columns and books pre-internet) to allow college graduate mothers to feel like they were “using their educations” for child-rearing. The obsession with “science-backed” and “I researched x” to justify any number of mothering decisions (good ones and bad ones alike) is an all too common example of that professionalization.

Friedan’s points about housewives having a  lack of private image do remain valid.  This is a typical situation with this book.  Some of her critiques are still sound, but she either proposes a ridiculous solution or ignores the implications of her own critiques.  She ends chapter 3 noting that young men have a crisis as well, with no clearly defined roles beyond getting a good job where your wife didn’t have to work for wages and no roles from their own fathers and grandfathers to fall back to. But that’s half a page in an entire chapter because really, who cares about the men and the fact that if the nameless discontent and lost-ness by age 30 is hitting dudes despite their access to “real” college courses and breadwinning, it might just mean that there’s a wider structural problem with the society? That can’t be right, it’s all picking on poor college educated women.

Chapter 4 is Friedan’s charming propaganda effort, all about how nice, sweet, feminine and industrious the early feminists were and how they totally loved men just so much guyz. It is interesting that housewives traveled extensively to see the early feminists. Further documentation of Friedan’s assertions is probably worth pursuing. But the thing to remember is that these feminist-visiting housewives were the daughters of and in some cases frontier wives themselves.

Technological advancements, the very ones that made single-family frontiering possible as early as the 18th century in America and in vast numbers during the 19th century, reduced sexual dimorphism based on physical strength and made the arguments for allowing women more access to non-physical political and economic parts of society plausible. Women didn’t need an army of labor at-home to nearly the same degree as the decades of technological advancement wore on, and it is very telling that Friedan speaks not at all of this particularly relevant vehicle by which early American feminists could take the time and space to travel and even make livings off giving speeches and writing pamphlets.

On page 96 is a brief discussion of class status and an obligatory mention of Sojourner Truth,  but it elides that there is a difference between the historical (and increasingly present-day) middle class as a “slice” or middleman glue-class holding together a massive underclass and a tiny elite vs. the concept of the middle class as “people mostly in the middle”, which requires a broad standard of relative prosperity in a society to even pretend at.

Friedan’s laments are very suggestive that she prefers the slice model to the broad model, and her team won, as we’re rapidly going back to the historical norm of a small middle/professional class. The “slice” has always been bigger in America than the rest of the West, but it was still small until the narrow window of time from the postwar period in the late 1940s until approximately the end of Nixon’s first term in the early 1970s. Then it began shrinking again during the 1980s.

Friedan closes out Chapter 4 lamenting what birth control rendered moot: that given real freedom, educated American women were going for that darned wifeydom and motherhood and oh wasn’t this just terrible. Reading feminist writing before reliable artificial contraception is always very interesting because it’s quite clear that some of the things Friedan was lamenting during the 1950s were essentially disguised eugenics, to lock down the smart women and get them popping out kids and if they were kind of bored, well, at least the genetic material was propagated sufficiently and that was the important thing.

Chapters 5-9 coming Tuesday and Wednesday.


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