More feminine mystique: Betty Friedan likes to complain (Chapters 8 and 9)

Chapter 8 is about admitting that women like being at home and explaining how encouraging it was evil. She fires up a big old and very fascinating list of statistics showing that the teenage marriage “pop” of the global baby boom of the 1950s was a strictly American phenomenon. It came with an interesting side effect, though: educated women were not ending up spinsters, but were instead having children and plenty of them.

Friedan has no explanation except her own bafflement for why educated women worked so hard to scrub their own floors and change alllll the diapers themselves. She dismisses the lack of domestics by stating that women simply rejected spending the money. Oddly for a Marxist, she never considers the possibility that the educated women decided they’d rather do the work themselves rather than treat domestic staff decently, which was much more reflective of the situation on the ground.

She does acknowledge that the drive in both culture and among college women themselves to return to home and DIY was a private retreat to a comforting bolthole one had real control over in the wake of yet another World War. In this way the college moms scrubbing their own floors in the 1950s were the forerunners of the subsequent wave of counterculture Back to the Land types just twenty years later.

Of course what Friedan doesn’t care about in this respect is that a culture of proto-DIY is anti-social, atomized and uncivic. It leads people towards technological solutions to social problems and leads to delusions that technology can replace the support of a healthy community. It is practically a straight line to Facebook groups and Amazon Prime instead of borrowing something from a neighbor and casual bridge afternoons or evenings. The retreat to, specifically, a nuclear home, was the straw that broke the back of an already atomized and individualistic by founding and nature core society. Mom-ness is also blamed for men skipping out on the draft due to clingy mothers.

Fascinatingly, Friedan complains that very few married mothers work outside the home full time and year round. She didn’t foresee that those women’s granddaughters would end up reverting towards that pattern, as in 2019, sixty years later than the 1950s, only about 25% of married mothers do so (in Friedan’s time this number was perhaps half that, 11-12%) and the 2019 number is an ongoing decline from the peaks of the older Boomer women who raced to work outside the home in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chapter 8 closes out with the curious circumstance of me agreeing with some of Friedan’s criticisms of college moms clinging to their parenting texts and professionalizing motherhood and then ending up with fretful, neurotic children, teenagers and young adults after all their careful hothouse parenting. But of course she’s obsessed with the solution being for women to have white collar jobs while their children are young. The question of who will provide the childcare and housework services for those women as a class is continually unanswered and is a dark colored, immigrant shaped elephant in the room (immigrant white women and black American women made up the bulk of domestic servants until the 1950s, with a substantial minority being lower-class ethnic white native-born women).

Chapter 9 is curiously titled, as Friedan claims that there’s a “sexual sell” being pitched to housewives, but she doesn’t really discuss sex, except to lament that advertising to housewives presents a glossy, desexualized set of personas rather than the earthy frank portrayals Friedan deems properly feminine sexuality. The chapter is interesting for its discussions of how advertisers broke housewives up into groups to determine how best to pitch to them.

A survey of 4500 such housewives during the 1940s led to them being categorized in three groups. The first was the True Housewives, with a Veblenian view of hard work and a resistance to the very labor-saving devices the new postwar economy was trying to get her to buy (but she bought a lot of them, she just needed a lot of handholding to get to the purchasing stages).  The second was the Career Woman, who was what we might term a psychological feminist.  She was very much a fan of all those other women out there working good jobs and having interesting careers, but she very very likely had never worked outside the home.  She was considered too critical and nitpicky and a frustration to tailor advertising to.

The third group, the Balanced Homemaker, just wanted to have a pleasant clean home and didn’t find inner joy in scrubbing a floor with a small brush, so she formed the perfect pitch-wife.  She embraced the labor-saving aspects of the new waves of housecleaning products, but also embraced the subtler attempt to professionalize consumption, in this case the consumption of tools for homemaking.  Many of the tools didn’t save much labor once women were buying sufficient quantities of them.

Advertisers didn’t care, though, they loved the rise of the Balanced Homemaker in the form of teenaged brides who could be trained to embrace this professionalized consumption and early expert-culture.  This is the core of what Friedan was upset about.  She viewed this professionalization of mere consumption as nefarious.  Defining a woman’s entire creative worth in her housecleaning, but only allowing her creativity to be expressed in learning new forms of consumption was the heart of the problem.

Friedan, who was already cross at the proto-mombloggers like Shirley Jackson, did not foresee the rise of fellow housewives being the ones to develop the advertising and pseudo-expert environment for housewives to be “Domestic Engineers” in.  Instagram Wife Life was unimaginable even to a bright critic like Friedan, yet with the lens of hindsight, it seems inevitable that something like it had to arise if sufficient mass communication technology beyond television also did.

Not being psychic, she instead spends much of Chapter 9 discussing how awful teen marriage is because the young girls are compliant and willing to accept the idea that they can purchase expert status via consumer behavior. But she doesn’t think through the implications of the pressure to be educated and clever even as she discusses the contradictions of that pressure.

The implication was that once just buying things could make you appear to be expert, the stage was set for modern momblog and instagram-influencer culture, in which college educated women, and the vanishingly small group of high-school graduate women pursue a shining and just as desexualized as in the 1950s image of a glossy, happy housewife who uses just the right products and wears the right clothes and is slim, approachable and with happy, attractive children.  But Friedan was unlikely to have come from the class tiers where the early MLMs were getting fired up in the 1950s doing just this sort of presenting housewife-to-housewife.

I had something quite different written about Chapter 9 but it got lost in a cut and paste disaster, so this very different take will have to substitute.