The second revolt of modern women - Macleans.ca
 

The second revolt of modern women

Betty Friedan’s revolutionary manifesto in 1963 brought on a new wave of militant feminism that angrily attacked traditional images of womanhood in America


 

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    IN the last year a shadowy kind of revolution has been raging within the special world that North American women inhabit, in their imaginations, when they think of themselves specifically as Women. This world of women’s magazines and women's clubs, of women's TV shows and women's newspaper sections, has been severely shaken by a new wave of militant feminism. A small but growing cadre of ardent revolutionaries have challenged the very basis of this world — the status of the North American woman as fulltime housewife and mother. The revolutionaries believe, to put it at its bluntest, that a woman who spends her whole life keeping house for her husband and children is to be pitied or despised.

    The revolution amounts to a strange new chapter in the history of feminism. It differs significantly from the first chapter written five decades ago by the militant suffragettes. That was a clear-cut revolution in which women fought for clear-cut goals: they chained themselves to lampposts to win the right to vote and the right to own property. By contrast, the current wave of feminism is like a war in Vietnam: the battle lines are vague and the combatants are not always sure which side they are on, or exactly why they are fighting.

    The new feminists are obsessed not by legal oppression but by shimmering ideas and shadowy images — and by a fantastic vision of the future that implies that someday all bright women will be employed in satisfying and richly creative work. The oppression that the new feminists oppose is the psychological oppression of homemaking and motherhood seen as a full time career. Their weapons are not street demonstrations but sociological studies, slick magazine articles, and millions of words uttered in public and private.

    Their revolution centres on the right of women to do, without suffering criticism or guilt, something that has been widely thought in recent years to be immoral — hand their children over to other people for a large part of each day, soon after birth, in order to pursue careers with much the same passion and energy as men. The leaders of the new feminism. w'ho are now working hard to inject this idea into the mass media, are mostly professional and business women who also have children and who believe that many more women not only could have serious careers as well as families but actually should do so. The feminist leaders' most passionate followers include a great many young housewives who feel trapped by their children; many college students who see in the new feminism the possibility of a richer life than their mothers experienced; and women of various ages who believe they lack personal identity and who tend to blame this lack on society.

    The most famous of the new feminists is Betty Friedan, who is to this movement what Senator McCarthy was to McCarthyism. She is the author of The Feminine Mystique, the main text of the movement, which sold some seventy thousand copies in hard cover when it appeared last year and has since sold more than half a million copies in paperback. Mrs. Friedan's book gave the new movement not only a certain structure, which it formerly lacked, but also an enemy — the feminine mystique. This, as Mrs. Friedan sees it, is the secular cult that has limited the human possibilities of women by forcing them into a common mold as housewives and mothers, whatever their intelligence or ability. A number of women have actually reported that The Feminine Mystique has changed their lives; other women just talk about it — some appear to their husbands to talk about little else. The new feminism is, in fact, an enormous wave of talk sweeping across North America, and there is at least a possibility that it will in the end not only change society, as the earlier feminism did, but also produce a New Woman, as the earlier feminism promised to do but did not.

    Through all of the new feminism there runs a streak of romantic nostalgia that is both appealing and pathetic. Mrs. Friedan's book, and the statements of scores of other feminists, express a yearning for a world of individualism expressed in everyday work. But, as Mrs. Friedan's critics have already pointed out, this ideal can never apply to more than a small minority of women. Only those with high intelligence or special ability can ever expect to find the work Mrs. Friedan describes. "Who knows," Mrs. Friedan says in the last paragraph of her book, "what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?” No one knows, but if women's liberated abilities turn out to be similar to men's, as many new feminists expect, then the new women will liberate themselves from the tyranny of the home in order to live inside a new nine-to-five tyranny of routine work (like most men). In one of Mrs. Friedan's articles we are introduced to specimens of liberated women who mesh their wife-mother lives with serious professional roles. We meet a professor, a TV performer, a geneticist, a town planner, a nursery school director, etc. We do not meet any file clerks, machinists, or cashiers; nor any of those professionally trained people — like anaesthetists, or advertising illustrators — whose work, however attractive it may appear, can be as boring and dehumanizing as washing dishes. The boring jobs are usually omitted from feminist propaganda and the working world is made to seem (from the suburban housewife’s viewpoint) as deliciously exciting as the make-believe advertising agencies in which hundreds of fictional heroines of women’s magazine stories have discovered soulmates named Todd.

    The new feminism arrives in North America at a curious moment. Automation increasingly threatens to create disastrous unemployment conditions, and the possibility that the movement may bring millions more housewives streaming out of their bungalows and into the labor force amounts almost to an economic nightmare. Mrs. Friedan, of course, aims her ideas mainly at women who could receive various kinds of professional training, and these will never have difficulty finding work to do. But her ideas, spread through the mass media, may also influence a great many others.

    At the same time, the 1960s have brought more routine work into many jobs, even the professions. Thelma McCormack of Toronto, who is a wife, a mother and a professional sociologist, recently pointed out this unhappy side of the new feminism. “The trouble is,” she said, “the working world, even the professional world, is becoming increasingly bureaucratized, and the range of individual expression gets narrower, not wider. The feminists say, ‘We will turn our work into something like the creative fulfillment of the artist.’ This is a romantic idea. So much work — even work for which you must be very highly qualified — is now so bureaucratic that a girl may become trained, find a position, and then, after years in it, be as bored as she ever was at home. She may find herself saying ‘I left home for this?’ ”

    I first heard of the new feminism at a national conference which the CBC held in Toronto in September 1962 under the title The Real World of Women. On that occasion Dr. Mirra Komarovsky, the Columbia University sociologist, said, “It almost seems that we women have become a major social problem for the nation.” She was kidding, but this notion — half the human race seen as a social problem — was not quite so farfetched as she and the people listening to her may have thought. At that point nobody guessed the intensity of the new' feminism that was to come, but Dr. Komarovsky outlined some of the factors that were about to produce it. She said that in the 1890s, say, it was not unreasonable to expect women to devote themselves mainly to their children; women lived shorter lives then, and their children lived with them for a larger proportion of their lives. But now an average woman lives fourteen years with her husband after the last child has left home, and then lives another thirteen years after the husband’s death.

    "I submit,” she said, “that this revolution in the family cycle caught us unprepared.” Women find the middle years of their life pointless. “It is not constructive to accuse these women of this great waste of creative potentialities. When such vast numbers of people have to be accused of character deficiencies, a suspicion arises that some social, and not merely individual solutions are called for.

    “First of all, we need a firmer expectation on the part of the woman herself, her husband, and the community that as the childbearing responsibilities slacken, she turn to some serious pursuit, paid or volunteer. A mother of young children should not be forced by false values to say apologetically, ‘I don’t do anything; I am just a housewife.’ But I sometimes think that addressed to the woman whose childbearing responsibilities are over, the question ‘You are a housewife, yes, but what do you do?’ should be a legitimate question.”

    Dr. Komarovsky asked, significantly, for a change in what women expect; and she went on to demand a change in public opinion. A year later Betty Friedan came along to provide just that.

    I had heard of the 1964 feminism in a vague, distant way from time to time, but I realized its importance only a few months ago when I received two letters, both from women, making the same demand in much the same tone. The letters insisted that, as a book reviewer, I should write something about The Feminine Mystique. Letters about articles not written are rare in my experience, and I decided to find out more than I then knew about Mrs. Friedan. I had read the reviews, which said the book stated the dilemma of North American women in fresh and interesting terms. I asked a friend of mine about it. She is twenty-eight, she has two preschool children, and six months ago she went back to work in the craft for which she trained in college. I asked her what she thought of The Feminine Mystique.

    “It’s my bible,” she said.

    I was to hear that phrase several times in the course of interviews on this subject, and indeed one of the most striking aspects of the new feminism is the devotion and gratitude of Betty Friedan’s readers.

    The Feminine Mystique is a well-written, extensively researched and violently angry attack on the image of womanhood that most American women have been taught to admire and emulate. Mrs. Friedan believes that hundreds of thousands of intelligent women have wasted themselves on household tasks that they and everybody else know are boring and even demeaning, when they could have been engaged seriously in business and the professions. This has resulted in boredom and often mental illness on their part; it has left their husbands married to dull, listless creatures: it has denied the world the value of their brains and their expensive educations.

    For this Mrs. Friedan and her followers place much of the blame on the attitudes of women’s magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s. Some feminists focus especially on Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose books and articles on child care constitute the gospel of the secular religion of North American motherhood. An article by Dr. Spock in the Journal in October 1952 summed up much of what the feminists are against. “Housewife or career girl — who should envy the other?” said the heading. Dr. Spock made it plain that being a housewife and mother was a noble profession, and that women who didn't think so were simply wrong. He concluded:

    "Occupation housewife and mother?

    "An occupation which if reasonably well performed, requires a better balanced personality than any other job. An occupation that is as influential as any other regular job in the world. Probably the only occupation which, if well done, is guaranteed to give a feeling of full satisfaction for one's entire life.”

    From the feminist point of view, there were two things wrong with this article: (1) It wasn't anywhere near the truth; (2) Someone out there was believing it. Nine tenths of housework and mothering, the feminists suggest, doesn't require any such “balanced personality”; and the idea of spending an entire life being fully satisfied by housework is to them so farfetched as to be laughable. Yet those feminists who were also readers of women's magazines and women's pages simply suffered through this kind of article in the 1950s, and sometimes felt intimidated by it. Those who had abandoned female culture, mainly creative artists and certain kinds of intellectuals, were not affected by the mythology of the period, and even today they are as astonished by Friedanism as men are. They can't understand what the argument is about: obviously no one was supposed to take all that nonsense seriously? Were they? But many did.

    Mrs. Friedan's book ended with the statement: “The time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.” Her revolutionary manifesto appeared at a moment when, as the Marxists say, a revolutionary situation existed. By 1963 a great many North American women were apparently in need of the reassurance her book provided. They had developed similar feelings independently; now they found their boredom and restlessness justified in a carefully documented book by an intelligent writer. It was now permissible, apparently, to feel tired of one's children, to be sick of housekeeping.

    Mrs. Friedan and her fellow revolutionaries base their activities on a profound belief in the changing and shaping powers of mass media. They first accept the idea, provided by cultural anthropology, that most of us are the slaves of the social forms that surround us — we may violate these forms in some ways, but usually we do what our culture expects of us. They believe that today these forms are in turn created, to an important extent, by the mass media. They think that if women's magazines tell their readers to do something, and tell them often and insistently enough, then eventually most readers will obey.

    Everything that has happened to Betty Friedan since her book was published tends to support this view. Women have written to her to say in effect that now they will do what she told them to do: "Last night I finished your book," wrote one woman, "and I sat down and immediately sent my application in to the college that I left fifteen years ago."

    When I saw Mrs. Friedan in New York two months ago she said that the response had astonished her. "I got to the open nerve end," she said. “I was talking to the condition of millions of women apparently — not just to the educated, as I thought, but to maybe all women bright enough to read a hook. The mystique was ready to topple."

    The most surprising response is not that of housewives, who have now been told they are free to do what they want, but that of established career women who are also mothers of small children. Mrs. Friedan's book — and the many recent sociological papers making similar points on another level — have provided for these women a social support that apparently they needed very badly. It appears that at least some of these women, so confident and aggressive on the surface, have actually felt intimidated, mainly by other women. I interviewed a Canadian professional woman, well established in her work for the last decade, on this point.

    "I'll tell you how things have changed," she said. “Five years ago at parties, I always had my back to the wall. When would I quit my job to look after my children and my husband? How did my children manage without me? I couldn't even joke about my children, as other mothers could. If I called them little monsters, the way half the non-working women I know do. it was assumed that this was because I was neglecting them.

    "But now this has changed. Now only the occasional housewife takes that view. In fact, some of the women who don't work are on the defensive."

    A few married women who do not work have told me they already feel intimidated when The Feminine Mystique is discussed. They feel browbeaten by Betty Friedan in the way that Betty Friedan claims other women are browbeaten by the women's magazines. “When you see Betty Friedan,” one woman said to me, "just tell her to shut up and go away.”

    When I suggested that the new feminism might intimidate some women, Mrs. Friedan said, “Perhaps they should be intimidated. I think it's criminal to waste talent. Of course, there are some women whose capabilities are exhausted by washing the dishes, but other women should live up to their potential. We shouldn't outlaw them, of course. We don’t outlaw bums on the Bowery or playboys or wastrels, but we do ask men to live up to their potential.”

    Most revolutions eventually produce some form of dictatorship, but usually it follows the success of the revolt. Friedanism has apparently discovered its own moral totalitarianism even before it has conquered the enemy.

    Men who stumble into this argument are often surprised by how sharply the battle lines are drawn, how little sympathy is offered from either side. The distinguished American sociologist David Riesman recently gave an outsider's view of this conflict and at the same time described both the central issue in the revolution and the personal bitterness with which it is discussed:

    "Attending conferences with educated middle-class women ... I have again and again observed the vehemence of the attack by those who call themselves 'only housewives' against those who are active outside the home, accusing the latter of neglecting their children and being accused in turn of neglecting their responsibilities to themselves and to the society. The intelligent, fairly affluent 'housewife' who knows perfectly well that her home is not quite a fulltime job can often be shrewish and vindictive toward the active women who remind her of this fact ...”

    If current feminists were rated on a scale of militancy, in political terms, then Dr. Komarovsky (who doesn't really want women to work while their children are young) might be classified as a moderate; Betty Friedan (who wants them to work all the time, if possible) might be called a left-wing liberal; and Alice S. Rossi, sociologist, of the University of Chicago, would be called a leftwing socialist. Mrs. Rossi’s feminist ideas are radical now, but they may well be the Friedanism of the next decade. Her point of view, like Mrs. Friedan’s, can be shown most clearly by a comparison with that of Dr. Spock.

    In the March 1964 issue of Redhook, under the title, “Are we minimizing differences between the sexes?” Dr. Spock explores the subject of sexual ambiguity. There is a general view, especially cherished by psychiatrists, that for the sake of adults and children alike men should act as much like men as possible and women as much like women. This, it is believed, provides children with secure guides to their own conduct and helps them find their own sexual roles. There is probably no single idea in the whole field of psychiatry that comes closer to being unanimously held.

    Dr. Spock states it more directly than most: "... one factor in the lowered sense of fulfillment of some American women and men, and in our high rate of divorce, may be that the distinction between their roles has been decreasing in an appreciable fraction of our population, particularly at the higher educational levels. The stress of competition has surreptitiously been replacing the satisfactions of mutual dependence ...”

    Dr. Spock goes on to say that girls should be educated as girls, so that they will take the deepest satisfaction in their careers as wives and mothers. “Then if they go to work too, they will be disposed to seek jobs that appeal to their womanly qualities and that enhance them, jobs they can perform better than men.” Thus they will not be tempted to compete with men.

    Now hear from Alice S. Rossi, mother, wife, fulltime sociologist and left-wing radical feminist: “ ... we need to reassert the claim to sex equality and to search for the means by which it can be achieved. By sex equality I mean a . . . conception of the roles of men and women in which they are equal and similar in such spheres as intellectual, artistic, political and occupational interests and participation, complementary only in those spheres dictated by physiological differences between the sexes. This assumes the traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine arc inappropriate to the kind of world we live in.

    “Each sex will cultivate some of the characteristics usually associated with the other in traditional sex role definitions. This means that tenderness and expressiveness should be cultivated in boys and socially approved in men ... It means that achievement need, workmanship and constructive aggression should be cultivated in girls and approved in women so that a female of any age would be similarly free to express these qualities in her social relationships."

    Mrs. Rossi believes, with many other scientists, that most of the differences between the sexes that are noted in research are socially rather than physiologically based. She says in effect that what Dr. Spock claims is right is actually wrong; and what he claims is wrong is actually right. Sexual ambiguity, far from being the curse that "he thinks it, is a blessing for women and men because it leaves both of them with more freedom than they possessed in a comparatively rigid atmosphere. Mrs. Rossi wants women not only to express their own “masculine" characteristics but to encourage such characteristics in their daughters and other women. She wants the new feminists to reproduce themselves, to remake American women in their own image while also remaking men. Mrs. Rossi makes Betty Friedan look like a reactionary.

    These ideas appeared recently in an article, "Equality Between the Sexes," in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Its spring issue, titled “The Woman in America," contained nine articles by sociologists and psychologists, and while they differed in emphasis and detail they followed in general the line of the new militant feminism. For it is a peculiarity of this movement that it proceeds at the same time through the universities and the mass media.

    Betty Friedan thinks that in Canada the mass media never were so much given over to the housewife ideology, the feminine mystique, as the media were in the United States. "You're something like the American northwest." she said recently. “There's still some connection with the frontier, where women had a more vital role, so women aren't as easily denigrated." In Toronto, that part of the CBC public affairs department that deals with women's interests tends to be in the hands of the feminists. Chatelaine has for some time favoured the new feminism rather more than most of the U.S. magazines, and the French-Canadian Châtelaine is militantly feminist in the old-fashioned sense. As one of its readers pointed out to me recently, they have more to be feminist about — women's property rights, for instance, are not yet completely won. French Canada is still working on its first feminist revolution, but all the signs indicate that English-speaking Canada, like the United States, is moving into the second.

    Through all of this a man can do little more than stand on the sidelines and watch. In the first feminist revolution men were the enemy, an entrenched and jealous power bloc. This time men are somewhat irrelevant. For the most part the fight is among women, a struggle of female image against female image, of female will against female will.

    The American women's magazines are and will probably remain, the most important battlegrounds in the struggle. In The Feminine Mystique both the Ladies' Home Journal and McCall's were Betty Friedan's enemies — in their articles and in their fiction, she charged, they persuasively promoted the myth of a false femininity, helping to limit women to the roles of giddy sex objects and happy domestics.

    But the Journal ran part of Mrs. Friedan's book before publication, and this spring it capitulated totally by handing over its June issue to Mrs. Friedan and Friedanism. She was allowed even to choose the fiction. Meanwhile. McCall's, aware of what its chief competitor was up to, scheduled for its June issue a short story titled "Feminine Mystique." It was written by Margaret Cousins, a fictioneer who is famous for her ability to spot trends and tailor her stories to match them. It was intended, beyond question, as a fictional debunking of Friedanism. The way in which the new feminism works as a battle of images can be seen by comparing the Cousins story with a short story by Rona Jaffe that was written on order for Mrs. Friedan's issue of the Journal.

    The Jaffe story is called “Who is Rima, what is she?" and it deals, as almost all literature in this field does, with educated, bright, middle-class women. It also deals with identity.

    The narrator of the story tells how she studied zoology in college but gave it up because it didn't seem to be the thing to do. She missed zoology, hated the typing job she got, but “I was less conscious of the loss than I was of what replaced it, a ferocious need to be loved. I needed someone to inflict all that creative energy on...”

    A central tenet of Friedanism is that women who have nothing to occupy their minds may get oversexed. Another rule is that if they depend on their husbands for everything they get nervous and sick.

    “I was . . . nervous, lost, a bird girl who appeared out of a tree in the jungle to answer someone’s dream and then disappeared at dawn,” says Miss Jaffc's narrator. Her first marriage is a failure.

    But it is her friend, Rima, who suffers most acutely from a lack of identity. She first falls in love with an already married Washington diplomat, for whom she transforms herself into a pseudo-aristocrat. They part, and she falls in love with a married New York ad man, for whom she makes herself an imitation suburban housewife. They part, and she falls for a writer, for whom she makes herself into a bronzed pagan island girl. When we last see her she is going off with an Italian millionaire, and the narrator tells us she will likely turn herself into an Italian film goddess.

    "Had there ever been a real Rima?” asks the narrator. “She had never looked for herself, nor had anyone else. Being each man's dream of love, she had eventually failed, and so . . . had failed herself.”

    The narrator, on the other hand, goes back to college for her graduate degree in zoology, meets a Broadway producer (“he did not think lady zoologists were freaks”), marries him, has a little boy, and in general conducts herself like a perfect heroine of the new feminism. She fulfills herself and gets the man, presumably as a prize.

    “Who is Rima, what is she?” is the first piece of Friedanistic fiction, but probably not the last. It delivers its message to the reader as clearly and emphatically as a piece of Soviet socialist realism about love on a collective farm; and yet it’s as pleasant as the slickest little piece about the nicest little girl in an advertising agency.

    On the other hand, the McCall's story by Margaret Cousins is a specific denial of Friedanism. “Feminine Mystique” concerns a woman named Maybelle who is bright, attractive, and middle-aged. She has a successful lawyer husband and some well-adjusted children.

    “A rundown of these facts,” the author tells us, “should have given Maybelle a sense of well-being; but in tribute to the propaganda on the plight of woman in the twentieth century, which had been beating her ears down for some time . . . she began to feel extremely sorry for herself.”

    So in McCall's Friedanistic opinion becomes harmful propaganda shattering the lives of otherwise happy women. Maybelle, intimidated by Friedanism, also feels unappreciated by her family and plans to get a job. But instead she figures out her worth, in money, to each member of the family, including her husband, and sends them bills. Her husband, realizing he has neglected her, takes her to dinner and promises a holiday in Greece.

    “Actually,” the happy story concludes, “Maybelle never collected any of her bills; but since that day, she hasn't worried about becoming obsolete.”

    The battle rages.

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