Friedan, Fifty Years Later…

Well, not Friedan, exactly, but The Feminine Mystique. It turned fifty last week, you know, and I have to say that I think it (she?) is holding up pretty well, all things considered.  As some of you have pointed out in comments, the book is flawed–there is no substantive discussion of race or class, and the attitude towards lesbians is, at best, uneasy.  I don’t want to gloss over those differences, but I will say that Mystique did, at least, prod the conversation about gender equality in a new direction–a direction that ultimately enabled a whole lot of other things.

I wrote about the book in The National, the Abu Dhabi/UAE newspaper, and I’m reprinting it in this site because…well because I think that no one has yet come up with a word better than “feminist,” so I want to keep defining and redefining that word until it’s not automatically associated with “man haters” and other ridiculously dated stereotypes.

Here’s the piece.  What do you think? Feminism as a movement is over? Feminism as a word should be retired? Or is it nope, nope, we’re still here, still insisting that feminism is about making the world a better place for men and women, boys and girls–and everyone in between.  (For another take on feminism, read this fantastic piece in Jezebel, about the misogynistic bullshit that rang even louder than usual at this year’s Oscars.)

It’s the question that bedevils us all, men and women alike; it’s the question that floats through our minds when we lie awake at night or daydream at our office computers or watch our children at the playground: “Is this all? Is this it?”

It’s the question that unsettles complacency; the question that can, in the right context, topple despots and inspire revolutions. And it’s the question with an equally potentially explosive corollary: “Isn’t there more?”

As I move closer to that comfortably upholstered majlis known as “middle age”, these questions loom large: after all, as one approaches 50, it’s perhaps time to come to terms with the fact that one is not, after all, going to be a ballerina or a fireman; that David Beckham’s career trajectory will not be one’s own.

At 50, one can only hope that “is this all?” returns an answer balanced between satisfaction and aspiration: if 50 is the new 30, maybe we can still finish that novel, learn karate, make an impact on the world in whatever small way is available to us. As that plague victim in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” protests, “I’m not dead yet … I think I’ll go for a walk this afternoon.”

“Is this all?” is the question that Betty Friedan used in the opening paragraph of The Feminine Mystique, published 50 years ago last week. Her book, which one reviewer described as “pulling the trigger on history,” provided the impetus for feminism’s second wave, the so-called “women’s libbers” who staged protest marches and stormed beauty pageants, who insisted that loading dishwashers and making meatloaf were not the ne plus ultra of the female experience.

Even though Friedan’s book overlooked (or ignored) the very different situations confining women of colour, The Feminine Mystique nevertheless inspired a revolution in the way questions of gender equality were discussed – indeed, in the very fact that gender equality became a subject for public discussion and debate.

Now that the mystique is 50, however, can we turn its question back on itself and ask, “is that all”? How have we handled the gauntlet thrown down by Friedan’s study? In grimmer moments, as when I think about some of the recent encroachments on women’s freedoms in the United States, the epidemic of rape in India and in African countries, the struggle to educate girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it seems as if we’re going backwards, that perhaps no society will ever be capacious enough to tolerate the full scope of female autonomy.

I think about my students, male and female, who hail from all the countries of the world and say things like “I’m not a feminist but …” and then conclude their statements with ideas that would be familiar to any 1960s-era women’s libber: that there should be equal pay for equal work, universal day-care, equal access to quality education, and that everyone should have the freedom to marry (or not) whomever they please.

In more optimistic moments, I think that maybe my students’ attitudes reflect the success of the feminist movement: the goals of feminism have embedded themselves in social consciousness, so maybe the refusal of the label “feminist” shouldn’t matter.

And yet, the phrase “feminine mystique” served as the spark that galvanised a revolution. Would that energy have been released without a sense of shared identity, shared purpose, shared anger? Without a common starting point, could people have moved from “is this all?” to “is there more?”

These questions, which seem innocuous enough when we’re asking about extra pudding at dinner, became paving stones on the path that led from what Friedan called “this picture of a half-life” to “a share in the whole of human destiny.” That’s the part of Friedan’s description of feminism that most people miss: it’s not just a “woman thing.” It’s a “people thing”, a reminder that everyone has gender and that none of us, really, want biology to dictate our fate.

Friedan would argue that we still need to ask “is this all”, because too often, all over the world, biology does dictate fate: health, education, opportunity, mortality. Maybe, at 50, The Feminine Mystique still has work to do; maybe this middle-aged lady can still rattle a few cages, can inspire others to ask “is this all?” and “isn’t there more?”

Who knows? Maybe at 50 it’s time for The Feminine Mystique to be translated into Arabic.

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5 Responses to Friedan, Fifty Years Later…

  1. Arnebya February 27, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    Boy did I enjoy this and it made me think (which I enjoy more) but that Jezebel piece? That there had me yelling hell yeah at my computer.
    Arnebya recently posted..And Then I Auditioned for LTYM DC While I Had Alcohol PoisoningMy Profile

    • Deborah Quinn February 27, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

      I LOVED that jezebel piece. wish I’d written it. but at least it’s linked on my page, which is…er…sort of like writing it myself? Sort of?

  2. Kim at Mama Mzungu February 27, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

    What a fantastic piece!! I really enjoyed your reflections – there’s a lot to chew on here.

    I’m not sure when labels like “feminism” or “liberal” became so maligned or why people eschew them so much. Maybe there’s some connotation of anger or militancy that we can’t shake? Maybe it’s just passe or uncool? Not sure why that would be.

    But I agree – feminism at it’s best is about choice and about ALL humanity. There’s a Bahai (my husband grew up Bahai) principle that says that men (really humanity) cannot achieve all they can until women are fully liberated to achieve all they can. The idea is that we’re interlinked and when some members are held back we all are. And the Bahai faith grew out of the Muslim world. Go figure…

    • Deborah Quinn February 27, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

      The principles of Bahai never fail to move me & make me think that maybe there’s hope…a really good friend of my mother’s is Bahai, and there is a huge & beautiful Bahai temple in the town where I grew up (in a Chicago suburb, go figure). I am consistently surprised–unpleasantly surprised–but how terrifying equality seems to be, to so many different kinds of people, for all different sorts of reasons. That fact depresses me…
      Thanks for stopping by…

      • Kim at Mama Mzungu February 27, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

        Small small world! I grew up outside Chicago too (Lincolnwood and Deerfield) and my cousins live just blocks away from that beautiful temple.

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