The Feminine Mystique

I was raised to be an independent, self-thinking woman. While my friends were playing with Barbie dolls, and EZ bake ovens, I played with legos, erector sets, and built massive puzzles (my mother has insane stories).

My mother seemed to do it all, and from her example, I thought it was expected of women to go to work 9+ hours/day and then tend to laundry, cooking, and other chores (when asked if men shared in the burdens, the answer was always ‘no’). Of course, this bothered me to no end; why should women have to do it all?

So, when I was 16, I decided to read The Feminine Mystique, and I decided I was going to make a poster that would go to some state history fair competition. Ergo this monstrosity…

My 2002 history fair poster
Sitting in front of the poster with my group at the state history fair competition. Sporting a terrible hairstyle, and wearing a watch designed to survive an apocalypse. Circa 2002

I assumed in the 21st century that men and women were on the same playing field (title IX had been instated long before). In school I did better in math and science than most guys, I could run a mile in under 6 minutes, and all of the first violinists were female. The notion of a level playing field existed until I went to college.

In college, I realized that 75% of the women around me were not focused on attaining their B.S. or B.A, but were primarily in school to get an M.R.S. degree. This was the first time in my life when I had seen women seeking an education for the sake of getting a degree. One of my college roommates was an education major-an admirable vocation if entered into thoughtfully, however this roommate was not terribly interested in childhood development, but instead was very interested in going out on Friday and Saturday nights. It seemed like many of the women I was surrounded by were focusing their energies not on developing their own personalities, but instead were hunting for a spouse. I felt like I had blasted back to the post WWII era.

This all rekindled thoughts of Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (the one I did a project on in 2002). The book (published in 1963) documented for the first time that “problem that has no name,” housewife’s syndrome, where American girls grew up fantasizing about finding their husbands, buying their dream homes and dream appliances, popping out babies and living happily ever after. In truth, happily-ever-after never came. Countless women suffered from depression and breakdowns as they faced the endless meaningless tasks of shopping and driving children around. They never had opportunities to fulfill their highest potential, to challenge themselves, to feel as though they were truly contributing to society beyond wielding the credit card to keep the consumer culture going.

The middle-class American housewife’s life had become, essentially, meaningless. The industrial revolution and subsequent rise of America’s consumer culture had demoted homemaking from a craft tradition to the mindless occupations of primping the house, shopping, and chauffeuring.

So, how does a woman avoid becoming some overly eager to get married person with a full life? Friedan and other feminist scholars suggested that equality, security, and human dignity are impossible to achieve without earning one’s own money. Women had to be economically independent. This sounds great, and easy enough in a post-industrialized society where we frame independence in the context of participation and prevalence in the market economy where personal economic power is the only security. Ideally, this should have enabled women to seek well-rounded/meaningful lifestyles but of course failed to happen (as evidenced by the roommate described previously)

Another point to consider is that post-WWII suburban life left countless housewives isolated in their homes. With family members gone all day, and each home its own island, the loneliness took its toll on these women. This, I believe has been the Achilles heel of the stay-at-home mom; the belief that self-sufficiency exists (it may exist as an illusion with the aid of corporations, but in reality, it doesn’t).

For decades, the American housewife has failed to perform any valuable function in the home except to feed money into the consumer marketplace. The crafts of gardening, preserving food, baking bread, educating the young, or caring for the aging are no longer necessary since we can easily ‘hire it out’. As such, the American household is no longer a unit of production, but of consumption.

It appears as though we have failed to grasp how consumerist “improvements” have failed us. We have failed to anticipate the ecological and health problems associated with processed foods, we didn’t recognize how schools and media were separating children from the earth, and didn’t predict how the health insurance industry would bankrupt us.

Friedan raised a critical point: “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.” What Friedan understood, but what many of us have ultimately forgotten, is that simply landing a job does not guarantee self-actualization. Those who do not seriously challenge themselves with a genuine life plan, with the intent of taking a constructive role in society, will share the same dangers as housewives who suffered under the mystique of feminine fulfillment; they face what Friedan called a “nonexistent future.”

I currently have the freedom and ability to do whatever it is I want to do. In thinking about it all, I’m realizing that feeding into the consumerist cycle will not work for me. So, as I see it I have 2 options:

  1. Finish grad school. Get the highest paying, most meaningful job possible. Work for 10 years (or some period of time) until I have saved up enough to not work for someone else.
  2. Find a job that is fulfilling and enables me to live a balanced life (so no excessive hours), and provides me with enough to live comfortably and support another/save a bit.

Of course, the second option seems the most ‘sane’. I have yet a couple years before I have to decide on anything, and life circumstances will surely motivate my directions. Nevertheless, it is certainly daunting to consider the number of possibilities that lay before me and how many of them I don’t want.


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