A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In hindsight, it’s difficult to gauge the full impact of certain books. One can view media reports from the time, but that doesn’t include conversations between regular people over phones, family dinners or get togethers with friends. So I don’t think we can completely understand what a bombshell Betty Friedan’s book was at the time. Most importantly, we cannot understand what a turmoil it created in the minds and emotions of American women of the period, though we can imagine.
This is the book which started the women’s movement in the 1960’s and I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to read it. Though to be honest, many of the ideas have been incorporated within society and popular culture, so much of it was familiar. But that familiarity was lacking when the book was first published.
The hub of the book is the meaning of the title, which Friedan explains as the mindset that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother and anything else detracts from her femininity. She is not to have a career or even a job, other than volunteer work, because not only would that take time and energy away from her role in the home, but it would also make her more “masculine”. She is to be totally dependant upon her husband financially and her focus is to be on serving his needs and any ambitions she has should be channeled through her preferably male children.
Friedan documents how this attitude was spread through marketing, religious institutions, books and magazines, medical and psychological practices and peer pressure.Popular culture played a big part. She traces how women’s fiction changed around 1949 from stories of plucky heroines to manipulative women trying to snare a man any way they could. She contrasts film stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo’s portrayals of strong women in the the 1930’s and 40’s to Marilyn Monroe’s helpless characters in the 1950’s as further proof of infantilizing of adult women. Colleges became a time killer while waiting for a husband, a practice encouraged by replacing serious classes with those labeled for example, “Marriage and the Family”, under the guise of sociology.
Of course, all of this left women feeling frustrated and empty, their lives wasted on repetitive tasks such as dishwashing. Some women turned to pill popping and alcohol to deal with the depression this caused. I can imagine that many felt vindicated when they read this book.
Friedan’s solution was a practical one; for women to resist society’s expectations and pursue a career. Not just any job, but one which meets their interests and potential. She acknowledges the courage it would take, but stresses the payoff, not only financially, but in fulfillment. She presents evidence that women who have done so, have also improved family dynamics, having made the home into a haven and not a trap.
This is an substantive book, with a thorough exploration of all angles pertaining to the author’s thesis, which means a lot of data is presented. It can be a bit tedious, reading so many case histories. And while Freud is dismissed as an old fogey with Victorian attitudes towards women and sex, his wacky ideas on homosexuality is given credence.Despite these flaws, the book is an important one, not just for it’s historical context, but because some parts of society has not progressed as much as we’d like to think. My wish is that at some point, hopefully in the near future, readers of this book will not find any reflection at all in their current culture. That will be progress.
W.W. Norton & Company 1963 562 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-06379-0