Feminism at Fifty: A Catholic woman looks back at ‘The Feminine Mystique’
In 1963, Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, launched second-wave feminism in an astounding way. Millions of copies were sold, and many women since have claimed, “It changed my life.” Opponents were equally aroused, and different interpretations of feminism have remained on the agenda ever since. A 50th anniversary edition of the book, published this year, provoked more discussion in both secular and religious circles. Did Betty Friedan get it right?
A Critical Analysis
Betty Friedan’s fiery manifesto was aimed at what she described as a postwar regression from an earlier, 19th-century feminist struggle for the vote, for legal rights and for equal opportunities to participate in society. Women were increasingly tending toward depression, boredom or worse because their capacities for meaningful work and achievement were being underused. This was “the problem without a name,” as she called it, accompanying America’s affluence and its retreat into suburban consumerism. Trying to live solely through the achievements of their husbands or children did not meet women’s own needs for growth through challenging work and accomplishment.
The main culprit, Ms. Friedan declared, lay in a false and pervasive cultural ideal of femininity, or “the feminine mystique.” Women were not being encouraged to develop and use their intelligence and education, but to confine their interests to the roles of wife, mother and housewife in isolated domestic enclaves. Business thrived on this mystique by selling women on beauty products, household appliances and ever higher standards of homemaking, childrearing and sexual allure. As women’s sexual and domestic roles were increasingly over-idealized, women’s education and women’s magazines were being “dumbed down” from their earlier intellectual standards. This structural deprivation of demanding, focused and challenging participation in the larger world outside the home could trivialize and damage the lives of women, men, marriage and families.
Betty Friedan herself was a well-educated Smith College graduate, and she backed up her analysis with convincing research on the subtle oppression women were experiencing—all in the name of freedom and domestic prosperity. She found that older, misogynous prejudice still existed and that these labeled women as inferior in mind and body, irrational, childlike, vain and essentially sexual and reproductive objects. These lingering attitudes were used to justify discrimination, civic inequality and male dominance in the name of protection for women. Girls were duly indoctrinated. The feminine mystique served as a more subtle form of ensuring women’s subordination to male privilege. (See, for instance, the sexual inequality in AMC’s “Mad Men.”)
Was it really that bad? the young may ask. Yes, it was. In the 1950s my father, who told me I was intelligent enough to be a doctor, also warned, “Don’t be too smart or no one will marry you.” Women were not welcome in graduate and professional schools, and the glass ceiling was universally in place. Married women could hardly aspire to combine work and family. Women were considered too different from men to expect fulfillment in anything other than marriage, children and the domestic arts.
Betty Friedan uncovered and criticized the interlocking arrangements that ensured male power and privilege. She roundly attacked the reigning intellectual justification for the mystique in the dogmas of psychoanalysis. Freud’s dictum was that “anatomy is destiny,” and he argued that females were subject to “penis envy” and could find satisfactory fulfilment only by embracing marriage, childbearing and subordinate social roles. He believed that a woman’s biology determined everything about her psychological, intellectual and emotional nature and that women must resign themselves to their true sexual nature to find mental health. One prominent woman psychoanalyst even described the essential feminine core as “a harmonious [!] blend of narcissism, masochism and passivity.”
Women who sought intellectual achievement and careers outside of or in addition to the family unit were considered denatured and indulging in their “masculine protest.” Many believed this would lead to neurosis and endanger their orgasmic sexual fulfillment and also harm their husbands, children and family life. Freudian orthodoxy was accepted as scientific truth among the elites and intelligentsia of the day. And the entrapping feature of Freudian thought was that, like Communism, any protests or doubts only served to prove unconscious resistance.
But Betty Friedan, as a researcher trained in psychology, pushed back and leaned in. She provided abundant and excellent evidence opposing the inadequacies of the Freudian system. Other sociologists and psychologists were summoned to the fray. Prominent American personality theorists like Abraham Maslow, Rollo May and Carl Rogers claimed that all humans, regardless of gender, possessed innate human drives to grow as persons and develop all their potential in work as well as in love. Self-actualization and a mature social identity was the primary human motivation. A woman who developed a mature self-identity with meaningful work could better give of herself to loving, working, her family and the larger society. Other psychologists and sociologists also maintained that social systems could be changed for the better.
Betty Friedan argued that young women should not be discouraged from rigorous educations or demanding careers. It was regressive for female success to be defined in terms of female beauty aimed at finding a man, marrying young and being financially and socially dependent. Women who aspired to demanding, focused work need not slight their family responsibilities. According to her acute analysis, the work of running a household tended to expand with the time available. More actively engaged working women got things done faster. Planning for the long term could inspire women to find part-time schooling, part-time work and more flexible child care arrangements.
Betty Friedan’s clarion call for change galvanized the society and stimulated changes in women’s lives and society’s institutions. But the 1960s were a turbulent, revolutionary period, and Friedan’s proposals incited criticism from all sides. More radicalized feminists immediately attacked her for not going far enough in furthering women’s liberation. Why were gay women’s rights and fulfillment being ignored? Other countercultural feminists felt that women should not accept elite male models of professional achievement. Did Friedan not recognize that males too were co-opted into unjust capitalist structures and condemned to meaningless work? Others felt that only educated, elite women like Friedan could advocate careerism as a satisfying way of life. Religious voices were also raised in disagreement with the feminine mystique’s secular and worldly assumptions.
Betty and Me
I was one of those newly emerging Catholic feminists who both supported and criticized Betty Friedan’s positions. In 1965 I published my own book, The Illusion of Eve: Modern Woman’s Search for Identity. In the ensuing debates on women and feminism, Betty Friedan and I often appeared together on the lecture circuit. Not surprisingly, she shared the default anti-Catholic stereotypes held by many in her secular milieu. Friedan was unaware of the Christian inspiration of earlier feminist movements, including our own earlier American foremothers or current Catholic feminist ferment. Friedan had no ear for spiritual and transcendent realities and values. Worship, contemplative practices and prayer were not her cup of tea. She called me an Aunt Tom for my advocacy of motherhood, marriage, religious vocations and love’s free gift of service. My gratitude for having borne seven children could be dismissed by her as an example of the way women escape into producing “teeming hordes of children.” Marital love could be described as “a parasitical softening.” Naturally we also disagreed about abortion, divorce and the positive role of the Catholic Church in the world.
But I also vigorously agreed with her in her critique of women’s inequality and stunted social opportunities. Male dominance and machismo values were a common enemy, as was the dreadful Freudian view of women’s essential passivity and psychological determinism. I appreciated our embodied human nature but saw gender differences as less important than the development of virtue, intelligence, character and loving kindness. I emphasized God as mother and held to the liberating words of St. Paul that in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. Great saints of God transcend their gender differences. Each Christian is to be both bride and groom, brother and sister, friend, lover and disciple of God.
My understanding of the Gospel call to grow up into the fullness of Christ is one that stresses loving interdependence with the whole community. Roles and leadership can hardly be decided simply by gender, since the Spirit blows where it will. God is no respecter of persons. Consequently I am uneasy with talk of “the eternal feminine” or “a theology of women” since it seems to imply that women should differ in their capacities and roles in church and society. Instead, I would see “the eternal feminine” as describing but one more characteristic of God’s love, omnipotence and perfection. Do we talk of “the eternal masculine” or a theology of men? Should there not be a theology of the human person? Christianity has a great and liberating revelation for creation. Humans, made in the image of God, are called to love, serve, reason, create and transform themselves and the world.
I think Christianity affirms that human embodiment is the greatest of gifts. The resurrection of the body is the blessed destiny of humanity, when God is all in all. And yes, in this life it seems clear to me that women’s capacity to bear and nurse children is the privilege of privileges. This understanding is the inspiration of pro-life feminism. But gratitude for the gift of mothering and nurturing new life should not be over-glorified, since men and single women also generate life for others in many creative ways. Although nothing in our culture may be as imperative as supporting women and protecting those who are mothers from violent harm and neglect, I resist reviving any form of a Catholic feminine mystique. Let us support children, women, men, families and the poor as the first work of Catholic feminism. Surely She Who Is approves.
The conversation continues: America's editors followup with questions for Sidney Callahan.