Whoa there, Black Betty [Freidan]!
The Christians have the Bible, the Jews the Torah, the Muslims the Qu’ran; me, I have The Feminine Mystique, with Betty Freidan as my Jesus, my Abraham, my Mohammad. The woman-and boy, is she a woman!-was a genius.
By all accounts , Betty Freidan the woman might not have been as kind and charitable as the Big Men that I’m comparing her to: she lived for a time in Sag Harbor, having summered out here for years, and everyone I know who met her, from my 12-grade AP English teacher to my own mother-called her “a bitch” (or a witch, in my PG English teacher’s case). She would come into the store where my mother works, tiny and dressed in black with her “prominent nose” and “complain about everything.” Rudeness is not a virtue, but if anyone was allowed to lash out, in my opinion, it would be Betty Freidan. The woman didn’t achieve her place in history by daintily tiptoeing around people.
Although I detest this style of music, I couldn’t help but think of this song and how everyone close to Ms. Freidan probably said “Whoa!” when listening to her talk.
I’ve been reading The Feminine Mystique on and off for the past two weeks; the slow going hearkens back to my laborious reading of the Koran. The similarities are obvious: both books are long, wordy, and full of critique on the human existence and human thought. There is so much information in Mystique that every page begs for reflection, discussion, analysis. Opponents of the book may scoff of my likening it to Holy Scriptures, but I rest my case: this is a book that concerns both men and women, both young and old, and certainly people of all ethnicities and races. Even though Betty wrote exclusively about white, middle and upper-class housewives, her words reflect on everybody, everywhere.
Opponents would further argue that the book has no bearing on society nowadays. Wasn’t the Mystique shattered? I can imagine them asking. Don’t women work and have kids nowadays? In fact, they may point out that even men are becoming more “feminine,” staying at home with the babies, pushing strollers, cooking for their wives. One could, perhaps, draw the opponents into two different categories: those who insist that women have rights, that the goals of the book and feminism in general have been met; and those who want to continue to deny women rights, who want them locked behind doors, who would decry Mystique as a book of sin and disharmony. I think the fact that there are still proponents, and opponents, to the book means that it is still very much relevant, to all types of people; and secondly, I would also argue that those who insist that the mystique is shattered are either blind, ignorant, or anti-women.
The Feminine Mystique calls us to question society. If you’re questioning women’s roles, than by default you’re also questioning men’s roles, and the nature of the family, the nature of work, and in questioning all of these you end up questioning society as a whole, economics as a whole, government as a whole. While reading Freidan I have realized that she touches on several topics that are highly relevant to life in 2012, particularly in her 1996 preface: she makes points about the economy, corporate greed and a “whole nation” that has “stopped growing up” (p. 186) in favor of promoting the fantasy, the absurd, eternally-young actors and actresses and a prolongation of childhood that couldn’t be more current with today’s climate.
Women today should read Betty Freidan, even if they believe themselves to be smart, educated, open-minded and free; it will give them a retrospect on the rights that they’re so lucky to obtain. Men should read Betty Freidan, particularly thosemen who believe that a woman should not be seen nor heard (has the book ever been distributed in the Middle East? I’m guessing not) so that they come face to face with the unfairness that they perpetuated on women since time immemorial. Women’s rights are not even a century old; the shake-up of the traditional family-and hence, way of living, where the mother no longer stays at home and out of society while the husband, man, rules the world-only truly came into place in the 60s and 70s-after, in fact, Mystique was published.
What Freidan proposed was, and is, considered “radical.” Because it challenged the norm, because it challenged people to look deeply into themselves, their behaviors, their loved ones, their friends, their parents: because it challenged a routine that had gone unchallenged, virtually, for thousands of years. People thought she was crazy; people thought her ideas were crazy. Isn’t religion the same? As each consecutive religion was introduced, the general population condemned the new worshippers and their new-fangled ideas, because they challenged what was considered normal, what was considered undisputed. Mystique has one over those books, I would argue, in that it wholeheartedly concerns reality and is backed up by cold, hard fact. The fact that the book commands equality for women also gives it one over the Holy Books, which were pretty mum on women’s rights.
“I read the book in high school and found it boring; I didn’t understand it,” my mother told me. Boring? Confusing? Her words confused me: how could any woman or girl find Betty Freidan boring? Her words especially surprised me because my grandmother herself had been a housewife back in the 1950s and 1960s, raising four kids in a ritzy Long Island neighborhood with a housekeeper to boot. Didn’t Mystique give my mother any pause, didn’t it make her consider her own mother, who never held a paying job in her life and who stayed at home all day? My grandmother, that archetypal 50’s housewife, is still alive today, although my grandfather has finally broken down and taken care of those stereotypical jobs relegated to the feminine mystique: going food shopping, cooking dinner, helping do odds and ends that my grandmother has become to wobbly to do herself.
I wonder what Betty would have thought about my grandparent’s full circle. I wonder what she would have said, had she witnessed my grandfather, the archetypal company executive (back in the day) who dined after the family had already eaten, pushing a shopping cart in Walbaums. I don’t think it means that the fight for women’s rights is over; but I do think it means that there’s something hidden under our superficial gender construction that is suppressed by a general collective desire for social control. My grandfather doesn’t mind cooking; au contraire, he actually enjoys it.
Woah! “Black” Betty might have said. She probably would have just smirked.