Do we need another Feminine Mystique?

As Syreeta mentioned a few days ago in the Daily Feminist Cheat Sheet–the Feminine Mystique is turning 50. Fifty-years since the launch of this important, yet problematic book, and everyone is asking–how far have we really come? And where do we go from here? These are salient questions, even if they frustrate those of us post-gender theory nerds that fit squarely in the “it’s not just about women anymore” camp. Or those that have read about Friedan’s own disinterest in radical feminism.

In Room for Debate at the NYTimes, a few familiar names start the conversation. Courtney writes  that the old “soul-killing minutiae” of suburban life has been replaced with a new “superwoman” ethos, forcing women to attempt having it all and be thin and hot while doing it. Dani McClain says, we need to continue to push for a feminism that is flexible and inclusive and to look to women of color led movements such as reproductive justice as the next frontier of feminist activism. While Michael Kimmel and Michael Kaufmen talk about bringing men in as allies. All of these are important points to remember when thinking about where we are today is feminism, in how we see gender, what’s shifted and what still needs to be pushed, broken and dismantled.

But, would the Feminine Mystique make sense today?

Considering the changes in the economy, the suburban housewife and her discontents is hardly what is on people’s minds–instead worry about keeping mortgages and paying for college are issues that have taken center stage for American families. While culture has shifted, economic disparity has intensified–the site of a lot of gender based oppression.  Also, the ultimate model of the “housewife” is no longer a white women, but is instead First Lady Michelle Obama. This is to say, things have changed a lot since the 1950’s.

From a cultural standpoint, the question, “how far have we come?” forces upon itself a linear model of progression that assumes there was a shared starting point and a goal, some moment where a collective “we” would know we were equal. But that cultural moment was never set and fractured by our histories. And clearly we are still searching for the right answers and solutions for gender-based oppression.

For as much as I can’t relate to the Feminine Mystique and Friedan’s specific case for women’s rights, I can relate to this–as long as we continue to believe, in any way, the inequality we experience in our lives is natural, innate and unquestionable–we’re still not “there” yet. But if we start to ask the right questions, we just might be moving in the right directions.

Also, if you are in NYC–I’ll be speaking with some other great panelists at the Feminine Mystique at 50 symposium.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

    I guess it depends on what you feel is at the root of the current round of housewifery. A lot of women are “choosing” to stay at home with their children because as they see it, the prohibitive costs of childcare would put them behind the 8-ball–if childcare costs $10/hour, is it really worth it to get a job that pays $12/hour?

    The underlying problem is that, the vast majority of the time, it is WOMEN who are expected to make this sacrifice. Pay inequity, lowered expectations, and a general assumption that of *course* the mother is going to be the one to stay at home create a perfect storm to push women back into the role of being a SAHM the second childcare becomes an issue, and because no one wants to consider themselves a victim of circumstance or be accused of not caring for their children, there’s a lot of false consciousness (to use an antiquated term) where women have to convince themselves that they’re doing exactly what they’ve wanted to do all along, and they totally don’t miss daily adult interaction, financial independence, and more stimulating intellectual activity that having a career means over wiping bottoms, dealing with cereal aisle meltdowns, and cleaning up after highchair mishaps.

    I think we definitely do need a new Feminine Mystique that does speak to the actual experience of today’s SAHM, that does address her frustrations and despair, in order to agitate larger social change.

  • honeybee

    I have to say it makes me upset when people question how much progress we’ve made. Has anyone here watched mad Men? I know you have. Well that was only 50 years ago and look how far we’ve come since then. Even in my own short (36) year lifespan I’ve seem very noticable improvements.

    If you look at the issues we are combating today – they are more subtle then before. While before women fought for the right to vote and the right to work, now it’s about achieving greater gender equality in politics and boardrooms. Things have improved ALOT.

    I think sometimes we have a tendency to get so focused on what is wrong that we lose sight of what is right or at least what is much better then before. But we need to spend more time congratulating ourselves on all of the great progress we’ve made! If nothing else it personally helps to motivate and improve the moods of those involved since it’s a positive focused conversation rather then the usual negative one.