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.


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.

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.