Feminism Revisited

This past week has seen the fiftieth anniversary observance of Betty Friedan’s classic book, “The Feminine Mystique”, the book that spurred both modern feminism, and the launching of the National Organization of Women (NOW). By coincidence (perhaps not), also noted was the imminent publication of “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, which seeks to move feminist goals to another level of achievement.

For those of you too young to remember, Friedan’s book, published in 1963, reflected a particular historical, social time. The post World War II period was one in which home and family were much valued. Many women who had worked in the war effort returned home, making way for the men returning from war. Numerous factors contributed to a resurgence of domesticity in addition to the delayed wish for marriage and children. The need for housing led to a move away from the cities to suburbia, which set a pattern of women caring for home and children while men commuted to jobs elsewhere.

Friedan identifies other factors in her book, especially those derived from psychoanalytic writings, which gave a compelling role to women’s femininity with its theoretical components of passivity and dependence. Added to this definition of women, were research findings and theories pointing to the importance of mothers and the potential damage to children of “bad” mothering. Friedan, who from the outset was writing about educated, comparatively well-off women, identified the dissatisfaction many of these women were feeling in their circumscribed lifestyle, and called it “the problem that has no name”. She did far more than name it – she helped start a movement that would change it.

Sandberg, it would appear, wants to take women to another stage of participation in the work world. From some of the advance words about her thinking it would seem she sees women as not yet liberated from some aspects of the feminine mystique. She apparently faults women for their lingering passivity, faltering self-assertion, and failure to “lean in”. Her goal is to start a new movement that aims to crack the glass ceiling that still exists for women.

In Friedan’s analysis of the “problem that has no name”, the feminine mystique meant that the “highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity” and that “women by merely being women and bearing children, will earn the same respect accorded men for their creative achievements.” In her view, the idea that women were fulfilling their femininity in motherhood was a way of keeping them locked into a fixed social role.

This analysis meant that women had to be “liberated” from the role of housewife/mother if they were to achieve a different kind of fulfillment. The early days of the movement that followed included rejections of motherhood, of any biological basis for women to have the mothering role, and a variety of theoretical solutions to the problem of caring for children. In this regard, feminism itself became part of the disregard for, and denigration of mothers and mothering that women were suffering from in the first place.

In the time before the women’s movement, “I’m just a housewife’ – meaning wife/mother – was a common refrain, heard whenever a woman was asked what she did. It was almost joked about. Early feminism made such a response totally unacceptable, and women who were in such a role felt no better about themselves than they had before – perhaps worse. Women had a new mandate about self-fulfillment, and it was no longer through motherhood.

Now Sheryl Sandberg, a woman described in the N.Y. Times as a woman with “dual stock riches…a 9,000 square foot house and a small army of household help” is “urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder.” It seems that attempts to open new opportunities for women result in a devaluation of the mothering role. Apparently, motherhood still is – or can be – an obstacle in achieving other goals. Unless one has the resources to hire a “small army of household help”, the problem of childcare remains.

Sandberg’s solution of paid help for childcare in the home obviously is not a solution for vast numbers of families. But the issue of what can replace mothers at home is one that has yet to be realistically confronted. Both the cost of quality daycare, and continued ambivalence about group care as a replacement for mother care, has resulted in a patchwork of childcare arrangements that families are left to deal with as best they can.

But beyond the practical realities, neither Friedan or Sandberg address the conflict women may feel within themselves, between caring for their children and pursuing work goals, whether economic or career based. Many women have found the conflict between family needs and work demands overwhelming, leading to a departure from the work force of those who can afford it, and a search for part-time employment. Career advancement is not the primary goal for all women. But it appears that achieving one set of goals means having to give up another.

Feminism has achieved many necessary and worthwhile gains for women. It is unfortunate that mothering continues to be devalued in the process.

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