On the 19 February 1963, a book was published that has since been credited with providing the spark for second-wave feminism in the United States. The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, highlighted what she called “the problem with no name” – that is the unhappiness of women in the 1950s and early 1960s. Why did it have no name? Because it was that unspoken unhappiness, that could creep up upon any woman, despite wealth or none, if she found herself in the “comfortable concentration camp” of the home.
The book, which was originally intended only as an article, started when Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former classmates at their 15th anniversary reunion. On finding so many of her former close friends unhappy with the situations in which they found themselves Friedan was spurred on to start writing.
Though women have long been subjugated in patriarchal societies, there seemed to be something rather unique in her findings. This had to do with the context in which she was researching. Post WWII, many woman who had previously found independence through work, were now expected to tend to the home, get married and start families. The rigidity of the family structure was also propagated through advertising and popular culture.
Realising that the patriarchal order may be in jeopardy, women’s magazines (with their male dominated editorial boards) started to promote the idea of fulfilment as an outcome of being housewives and mothers. This produced the “mystique” that women were naturally inclined towards this role.
For Friedan, women wanted more, they were just unable to communicate this given how strong and pervasive the counter-message was. Friedan wanted none of it, instead calling on women to demand more. ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home‘, she wrote.
As Nancy McDermott in her review of the book today says:
Fast forward 50 years to today. The Feminine Mystique’s resonance has largely dissipated. No one really believes that women are less capable than men, and the vast majority of men and women envision sharing the tasks of domestic work and raising children equally. And yet somehow, the problem raised by The Feminine Mystique persists in the form of the problem of ‘gender equality and work-life balance’.
Part of the problem here is that some women are priced out of work by ignorant, or unsympathetic, governments. The current Coalition government is no exception. Given the squeeze on child tax credits and the costs of childcare it is often cheaper for a parent to stay at home rather than work as well as put up for the rising costs of raising children. Since men are disproportionately paid more in the workplace than women, it often makes financial sense for the latter group to give up their work.
The same problem exists in this society, as it did in Friedan’s 50 years ago – only in a different form. Even though stable early years are good for children and families, who in turn benefit society, extortionate costs for raising children is having deleterious effects. This in turn effects women’s freedom of choice.
Ensuring that childcare is low in cost, as well as high in quality, is another plank in the goal of true freedom of choice. But, ultimately, Friedan was right when she said that education and meaningful work were liberatory for women, and for any advancements we have made today we ought to remember her influential sentiments.