More feminine mystique: Betty Friedan likes to complain (Chapters 5-7)

Chapter 5 is some Freud bashing. Nothing wrong with that. But she really lays into people she terms Freud’s “popularizers” as particular vectors of over-sexualized and immature presentations of femininity as the properly ordered social norm for wives and mothers. She also blames the rising wave of scientism for cruelly tricking smart women into being housewives because Freud’s rapid adoption into the culture meant that “the science was settled”. Interesting, that sort of thing and how it never really leaves any secular, technologically driven society.

Chapter 6 is mostly a weird screed against Margaret Mead. But before that point, Friedan beefs about the completely true argument that most men and most women aren’t going to be dynamos blowing the roof off the world with their careers. The modern culture of self-absorbed “knowledge workers” deluded about the significance of their personal and direct contributions is exactly what the sociologists of Friedan’s day feared, or claimed to at the time. Their attempts to reassure women in their freshly constrained domestic spaces, though, were hollow, because Friedan was completely correct that it was just talk. Curiously, a wave of perhaps 70% right wing and 30% left wing college degreed women pretty much took all the “functional” science-speak of the 1950s around domesticity and reinvented it as ye olde domestick traditionne starting in the 1980s. In any case, Friedan doesn’t really get going until she can beat up on Margaret Mead.

She attacks Mead’s conception of women as passively receptive and unable to projectively produce creative work. Friedan pegs Mead as the source of what would turn into the “Crunchy” or “Natural Mama” culture of natural birth, babywearing, breastfeeding activism and really, even homeschooling and homesteading, though Friedan did not foresee how extensive what was already a formative culture would become. Yes, all the crunchy breastfeeding stuff was underway during the 1950s, which is when La Leche League was formed and there were articles in major magazines about homebirthing and unassisted birth. But Friedan asserts that what Mead offers in her odes to primitive natural traditions is a sort of hyper-naturalism and that what their bodies naturally do is what they should pour all their creative energy into displaying is a trap for American (white and college-educated) women.

The chapter closes with Friedan excoriating Mead for wanting to introduce some scientism into the proto-Mama Culture forming among educated women. Well, now I know how we got “breastfeed because of this science-talk about immune factors in the milk” and “natural-birth because of this science-talk about healthy bacteria”, and so on and so forth. Chapter 6 is kind of a fulcrum point in this book, where Friedan butts up against an unexpected approach taken by college educated wives and mothers– scientificizing the domestic and maternal so that scrubbing a floor and nursing a baby became, like owning ten different kinds of mop, a way to “use your education” via intellectualizing non-intellectual acts and later, via consumption to become an expert by owning many different tools and pieces of equipment.

Breastmilk pumping culture is nearly unknown outside the United States, and this is completely tied into that need to intellectualize and science-up something natural and relatively straightforward that stopped being so because there was a market for it. Friedan blames a popularizer, but given how American college-educated mothers exploded as a group, until in many regions they made up most of the mothers or even a supermajority of mothers, the effort falls flat in the face of what happened over the subsequent decades as American college moms got artificial birth control and did all the natural-cult stuff anyway. Friedan truly thought more educated women would lead to this not happening and she was profoundly wrong about the nature of the American woman.

There is also a lot of not-very-hidden Marxism, but it takes a while for her to really get going on that. The goal of “women need CAREERS” is inherently Marxist, and all the rest is just Friedan’s feels about how non-Marxist American college moms persisted in being despite all her hectoring.

Chapter 7 just totally vindicates my general view that in America mass college education for white women has primarily been about appearing as wife-material rather than wanting to pursue knowledge or be intellectually well-rounded or all the other pretty lies that get told about mass college for white women and which were interestingly much more true regarding much less but still kinda-mass college for black men and women. Having children (including adopting them if necessary) was utterly important to Vassar-ettes in 1956 and 1959. Being in an egalitarian marriage with a partner was absolutely not what they were interested in.

Friedan plays an interesting game of gotcha with the reader by having the college professors throw their hands in the air about how the girls just don’t want to have book learning beyond the bare minimum to get married and have kids via quotes but then lambasting the professors for sex-maddening the young girls and training them via coursework in literal home economics and baby-minding to think of themselves as purely receptive and to resist too much seriousness in intellectual pursuit.

Freidan very interestingly devotes several pages in Chapter 7 to complaining about smart, intellectually capable young women not attending college and having incredibly high birth rates, worrisomely comparable to Africa and India, as she puts it. She repeatedly laments the low college completion rate of young women, but barely has a word for the fact that it was nearly as low for young men, only about 50% in fact and that men had decided to spend the 1960s achieving dropout parity with women. The top third of students were expected to go to college, but they were not expected to collectively complete a degree. That much, at least, has radically changed in the intervening decades since Friedan wrote her tract.

She also promotes exceptionalism as a direct rebuttal to what she claims is the core argument of “functionalism”: that what 51% do, 100% must do. Friedan opts instead to promote the rare outlier as “a variation of normal”. Wow, now I know where 1970s midwives got that from! Friedan doesn’t use the phrase, but it sums up her argument. Weird outliers have to be normalized so more girls will choose those paths. What 1% do, 100% must do, in other words.  We now live in this world and in terms of motherhood it’s been devastatingly anti-natalist and anti-feminine.

Friedan also laments some prescriptions for middle-aged housewives with empty nests that have mostly come true: husbands retiring early to hang out with their wives, working part-time jobs that are non-career-path, volunteering and political activism . It’s very interesting to see a feminist lambast women being out of the home more in socially and politically influential ways.  It’s also a little weird to see her being angry about men being at home with their wives more, one would think a supposed egalitarian type would be pretty up with people about that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.