The Feminine Mystique
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
600 pp., 17.95
Why We Still Need "The Feminine Mystique"
Last fall, I joined more than 200 Christian women at the American Bible Society in central Manhattan to discuss identity, ambition, and vocational calling. Hosted by Q Ideas, the one-day event was a sort of "Lean In for Jesus," where we were summoned to take risks, discover our gifts, and influence our communities. Such messages are familiar—chances are you'll hear similar ones at Women of Faith events and MOPS Bible studies. But the Q attendees seemed to want more than spiritual encouragement. Or, they at least wanted the kind that spoke to a public, professional role as much as to a private devotional life.
One of the talks, from Chicago-based writer Shauna Niequist, could have been borrowed from The Feminine Mystique, which turned 50 last year. I had not read it until last fall, as I began to work on a project about women and work. In Friedan's book, I found a surprising resonance with Christian views on vocation, gender, and personhood. The following essay is, I hope, a positive contribution to an often divisive and shrill debate about women's roles. Fifty-one years since its publication, Friedan's book moves us beyond roles into something more wonderfully human. —KB
Shauna Niequist's mom had spent almost all of her adult life being a pastor's wife, mother, and homemaker. She excelled in all of these roles. But 17 years in, she walked into a counselor's office and said, "I don't know who I am anymore. Something has to change." Through counseling, friendships, and prayer, says Niequist, her mother unearthed the gifts and passions that had drawn her to a social work degree. "I found my voice in my 40s and my vocation in my 50s," Niequist's mom, now an advocate for peace-making in the Middle East, said. "So the good news is that it's not too late for any of you." Indeed, all of us at the conference where Niequist told her story were getting a head-start.
Betty Friedan would have been proud. Surprised, too, perhaps, to see her ideas—dissected and debated for a half-century now—fleshed out in a faith community not always friendly toward her. In The Feminine Mystique, 50 years old this year, Friedan dared to name "the problem that has no name" for a generation of American women after World War II. The problem, whispered in private interviews and evidenced by high rates of depression, alcoholism, and worse, was that middle-class women were very unhappy. Outwardly they were rich, but inwardly they were wasting away. Why? On the well-trod path to marriage, children, and homemaking, Friedan posited, these women had lost themselves.
How quickly things had changed for women in Friedan's time. By the mid-20th century, they could vote and own property, sit next to men in college classrooms, and pursue careers, often living alone in city centers. Women like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had enlivened both the suffrage and abolitionist movements, often forming bonds with blacks in a uniting quest for equality. While minority and lower-class women had long worked in factories, middle-class women joined their ranks during World War II to boost wartime efforts. Women's magazines of the time printed stories of heroines "marching toward some goal or vision of their own, struggling with some problem of work or the world," wrote Friedan. "These New Women were almost never housewives; in fact, the stories usually ended before they had children." The New Woman left home to grow up, attracting men by courageously pursuing her dreams, not by passively waiting for him to give her marriage and children and, thus, identity.
But after World War II, Americans largely retreated to the safety and stability of home. The GI Bill of 1944 gave returning soldiers money to build houses outside the city. They married and had babies: more babies in 1946, in fact, than ever before: 3.4 million, 20 percent more than in 1945. Most middle-class women who had joined the war efforts returned to being full-time house-wives. "Fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949—the housewife-mother," wrote Friedan. By 1958, she observed, the three major women's magazines lacked a single story of a woman "who had a career, a commitment to any work, art, profession, or mission in the world, other than 'Occupation: housewife.'"
It would be one thing if the women had surveyed all the options and had chosen mothering and homemaking as their one pure desire. But human desire, we know, does not arise in a vacuum. Powerful narratives of meaning seed it—especially, in a post-industrial society, narratives told by advertisers and print media. James K. A. Smith, philosopher and author of Desiring the Kingdom, has in recent years examined the role of desire in human and spiritual formation. "We are recruited to visions of the good life apart from our conscious choosing," Smith recently told Christianity Today. "It's not a question of whether you're being conscripted to some vision of the good life; it's which vision of the good life."
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.
These distinct curses play out throughout the world of the Old Testament. But the prophets speak of a new reality in which men and women alike are empowered by the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21). In the final book of Scripture, we encounter the goal of Christ's redemptive work: the heavenly city, where the curse of Eden has been transformed into the healing of nations. Until the Lord returns, writes Crouch, "Our calling is to join God in what he is already doing—to make visible what … he has already done." In other words, we are called to apply our gifts, passions, and experiences to all spheres of society—from the most to least visible, from the workplace to the home and everywhere in between—to contribute to human flourishing and point toward shalom. The full participation of men and women alike—with all their created beauty, differences, and unique offerings—are needed for the task.
More than Their Biology
Of course, none of this biblical anthropology denigrates the role of raising children and caring for a home. One wonderful quality about Culture Making is that Crouch, drawing on his and his wife's experience raising two children, affirms home life as a crucial seedbed of creating culture. A family is a little civilization unto itself, with its own history, customs, and language, and mothers have a crucial role in shaping the generations who lead the nations.
Despite the stereotypes, Friedan also affirmed the important work of wives and mothers. She simply reminded women that other social roles and responsibilities should be open to them. She warned them about the "cult of procreation," in which "women kept on having babies because they knew no other way to create."
In Friedan's time, even all the creative work of homemaking had been supplanted by industry. In its place had come products marketed expressly to women, the chief customers of American business. "Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house," Friedan observed. She recounted interviewing a marketer brought in by businesses expressly to make their products attract women. "The major unfulfilled need of the modern housewife," he said, was creative work. And so, for example, he helped X Mix create a baking mix that required just enough effort (adding eggs and milk) that the woman got a "feeling of creativeness," yet appreciated the convenience. Friedan called "the manipulators and their clients in American business" the most powerful perpetuators of the feminine mystique. And she noted, rightly, that "the buying of things" did not come close to satisfying the housewife's need for identity and a social aim into which she could pour her efforts.
Dorothy Sayers had noted this 16 years before Friedan did. In her essay "The Human-Not-Quite-Human," the Anglo-Catholic novelist and essayist responded to the complaint at the time that women were competing with men for skilled jobs. We can hardly blame them, Sayers retorted, because "men took over the women's jobs by transferring them from the home to the factory." Medieval women had "control of many industries—spinning, weaving, baking, brewing … in which she worked with head as well as hands. But now all the control and direction—the intelligent part—of those industries have gone to the men."
I don't believe Sayers and Friedan ever met, but I wish they had. The two writers shared an interest in promoting a radically humane vision of women and work. "Every woman is a human being—one cannot repeat that too often—and a human must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world," wrote Sayers. Friedan was, in a sense, sounding the alarm on a group of people who had been coerced to abandon occupation. She saw "the unique human capacity … to live not at the mercy of the world, but as a builder and designer of that world—that is the distinction between animal and human behavior." Without the ability to build and design, she said, women "lose the sense of who they are"—which is no more and no less than humans.
So, what does it mean for women to live as humans—as funny as that sounds? We would be remiss to answer that question by taking the modern icon of masculinity and baptizing it in pink. The identity script for men in Friedan's time—working 9 to 6 in a crowded office, climbing the corporate and ego ladder, spending most of the day away from home—is no greater a vision of human flourishing than of the quiet, isolated bungalow where creative work means cutting the sandwiches in triangles or squares. Implicit in The Feminine Mystique is an invitation for men to reinvest in the little civilization of home—to work with their hands, to take joy in their children, to find value and meaning outside a paycheck and colleagues' praise. Since the time of Friedan's writing, American men have taken up nearly twice as much housework (defined as maintenance, chores, and childcare), and time spent nurturing children has increased for men and women alike.
But until more women see that they are more than biology—something that men of the modern era have simply taken for granted—The Feminine Mystique continues to sound an alarm bell. When debates persist about what women are best suited to do and not do, we still need Friedan's mantra that, before they are wives, mothers, and homemakers (or engineers or artists), women are humans. As absurdly simple a notion it is, it could make bearing the Imago Dei a little less burdensome and a little more joyful for a new generation of women.
Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of Christianity Today magazine. A version of this essay appeared in the winter 2014 issue of Fare Forward.
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