The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition)
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
592 pp., $17.95
Why We Still Need "The Feminine Mystique"
According to Friedan, the vision of the good life offered to her peers—by Freud, Margaret Mead, college educators, and advertisers and their clients—centered on their sex-role. And young women who could become "physicists, philosophers, poets, doctors, lawyers, stateswomen, social pioneers, even college professors" were graduating college only to get married or dropping out early at astounding rates. With their intellect, skills, and passions cloistered in the suburbs, the women felt stunted and the larger society lost out.
The Problem has a Name
Like every important book, The Feminine Mystique has been vigorously debated in the 50 years since its release. Friedan has been called everything from anti-feminine to anti-family to racist. And readers today might sense she swung the pendulum too far in one direction. But despite all we might lament about the second wave of feminism, Friedan's clarion call of human achievement is still strikingly germane. "The problem that has no name" is, for men and women alike, the problem of bearing the image of the Creator, yet lacking outlets for creative talent not directly related to child-rearing. Friedan's reflections on human purpose dovetail with classic biblical anthropology. Between the Garden in Genesis and the City in Revelation, men and women are invited to make something of the world beyond the private space of home. When women and men lose touch with their own crucial participation in human culture, their Imago Dei is dimmed. And when the important cultural activities of homemaking and childrearing are left to women alone, men and women alike lose out.
The Bible starts with the fundamental goodness of work. After creating the world, God invites the first humans to mimic his creativity. Genesis 1 says that "God created mankind in his own image … male and female he created them" (v. 27). In the next verse, he commands Adam and Eve "to be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it" (v. 28). Here, we see that maleness and femaleness are good, and that together, male and female are given the cultural mandate—the charge to build homes and laws and paintings and children and recipes and canals and everything else needed for humans to flourish. "Making something of the world is of the very essence of what we are meant to be and do," writes Andy Crouch in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Friedan says something similar: "When man [humankind] discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being."
But God didn't create sexless humans; he created male and female and called it good. So don't men and women have different kinds of work? What of the work that only women can do: the work of bearing children? It's certainly true women throughout most of Western history have spent their days raising children and tending the home. Most recently (perhaps fearing that feminism has destroyed the family), some Christians have reinforced "separate spheres," the relatively new belief that work and home should be divided along gender lines. Owen Strachan, executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, recently told Religion News Service: "In the Bible, men are not called to be workers at home. Women are. And women and even widows are called to marry, as the Lord allows, and then bear children and make a home."
Certainly this view would have fit comfortably within Friedan's world. Yet biblical anthropology offers us a more expansive view of gender and work. It's striking that God gives the cultural mandate to humanity, not to the woman on one side, and the man on the other. "Adam and Eve" as such are not introduced until Genesis 2, yet even there, before the Fall, the biblical text doesn't speak of "male labor" and "female labor." Instead there is only human labor, undertaken by the first humans together in community. Not until Genesis 3 do Adam and Eve receive specific, gender-based curses: Eve, the curse of painful childbirth, and Adam, the curse of working the land in toil.