Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Feminine Mystique

Yesterday I completed a book I have been slowly working my way through for several weeks: Betty Friedan's revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique. Some have questioned why a man such as myself would read such a book. What could it possibly offer men? (Still others would question what it could possibly offer women.) But I found the book very enlightening and very challenging. I would assert that this book has something to say to both men and women now just as much as it did when it was first published fifty years ago.

I will not undertake a complete review, summary or critique of the book in this post or in future posts. There is simply too much good content for me to capture all of it. Instead I will say again: read the book! However, I do want to offer a few comments and insights based on my reading.

The feminine mystique was a name Friedan coined for a powerful influence that she identified in the lives of women of the 50's and 60's in the United States. She saw women whose mothers had enjoyed the fruits of emancipation and growing equality reject the very things their mothers had fought for and earned. She saw growing numbers of women who saw their entire identity in being wives and mothers. Along with that she identified that a large percentage of these women suffered from “the problem with no name.” That problem had to do with their lack of identity which stemmed, she felt, from the fact that they had embraced the idea of the feminine mystique.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the origin of life that man-made science may never be able. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women's troubles, in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.

In order for a woman to be a true woman, the mystique argues, she must renounce anything that doesn't accord with her nature as a nurturer. She must certainly not seek to develop her identity outside of the home through education or professional excellence. A woman is only truly feminine and will only be truly satisfied as a wife and mother. The effort to live otherwise, according to the mystique, has resulted in untold problems for women and society.

In her book Friedan examines the origins and influences that promoted this mystique and considered the impact that it was having on society at the time and the potential impact for the future should the trend continue. She looked at evidence showing that women who subscribed to this mystique were not in fact fulfilled, whole women, but instead empty shells without any real identity or purpose in life. She called for a change in the way society viewed women and their roles, in how women were educated and prepared for their lives and ultimately in how women viewed themselves. As it turned out, Friedan ended up, along with others, launching a movement to support and promote a renewed emancipation of women in society – a movement that continues to this day because so much of what would constitute full equality still eludes women.

All too many people look at feminism today and question whether it is still needed. They say that women have achieved equality. They have the right to vote. What more do they want? Dianna Anderson addresses precisely this question in her blog today. Take time to read what she says.

I would add as well one thought that kept recurring to me as I read Friedan's book. Although she wrote fifty years ago, the conditions she describes still persist in many circles to this day. In fact, I think we may be in another wave similar to what she describes. She speaks of the first women's emancipation movement that won the right to vote and other basic rights early in the last century. The feminine mystique grew out of a response to that, a response that said women had already obtained their rights and nothing more needed to be done. In fact, too much had been done and women needed to recognize and accept that their happiness lay in the home. After Friedan launched the women's movement we saw another advance in women's equality, but now there appears to be another backlash. I see and hear too many people saying that women should be content with their lot and that they ask for too much with their continued demands for equality.

I am still more troubled by what I see as a growing movement within conservative Christian circles to revive the feminine mystique as the image of biblical womanhood. This new (but really old) mystique says that a godly woman will find her place as wife and mother and should not expect or look for fulfillment outside of those roles. I do not belittle or demean these roles. They are important and need to be given proper respect – as Friedan herself agreed. But women should not be told that these are the only roles or the highest roles that they can fulfill. God calls and gifts women just as much as he does men and the Church does wrong when it tells women that they should not seek to express their creative potential in any meaningful way other than in the home. Women have potential above and beyond that involved in being wives and mothers.

For this reason I agree with Dianna and many others that feminism still has an important place in our society. In fact, one of the places we most need a feminist movement is within the Church. I want to see women liberated to fulfill their creative potential wherever and however they are able, whether that includes beings wives and mothers or not. Women have made much progress, but there is still much room for improvement. Let's not give up the fight now. 

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