The Feminine Mystique Revisited

March 10, 2020 | Published first in Church Life Journal

Feminine and Feminist Identity

Betty Friedan became concerned with the problem of female identity in the 1950’s. This led her to conclusions that she later published in the surprising 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique.[1] In Friedan’s view, cultural expectations that normed female roles of marriage, mothering, and homemaking, roles that she collectively termed “the feminine mystique,” ate away at a woman’s sense of self. “It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women,” she wrote. “There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I’ without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive.”[2]

What to make of this? Such a pathologization of stay-at-home mothers would make most women bristle today, as would Friedan’s labeling of their homes as “comfortable concentration camps.” And today’s reader rightly winces at the pervasive classism of the book, in which the paradigmatic (white) woman lives in a posh, mid-century-modern house, and the paradigmatic (white) man is an executive escaping into the city.

And yet there is something quite true that Friedan does not get much credit for noticing: the widespread existence of what Christopher Lasch sixteen years later would label “a culture of narcissism.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, Lasch’s observation was not a matter of moralism, nor did he conflate everyday narcissism with the pathological variety, which is a distinct phenomenon beyond the purview of his book. Rather, he postulated what I call the “narcissistic spectrum”; American culture by the 1970’s was marked by pervasive symptoms of narcissism, such that low-level narcissistic tendencies were the default and not the exception. Those on the narcissistic spectrum tend to lack a sense of self. When Betty Friedan blamed “the feminine mystique” for women’s lack of “a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I,’” she was noticing the same kind of thing.[3]

Yet why should we listen to Friedan about any of this? It is indisputable that, over five decades later, the “feminine mystique” of the stay-at-home mother no longer has a strong hold on the cultural imagination. Instead of Doris Day singing “Que sera, sera,” female protagonists are much more likely to be sexually-experienced and wisecracking career women. Instead of June Cleaver, we have Captain Marvel.

Despite this cultural distance, though, many of Friedan’s observations still resonate today. First, Friedan was one of the first feminists to make a sustained case for the importance of women entering the capitalist workforce as a matter of female well-being. She was the antecedent to contemporary voices, such as Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and Linda Hirshman (Get to Work), all of whom privilege a job with a paycheck as a (or the) key source of female identity.

Secondly, Friedan’s concern with the loss of “a firm core of self” resonates still, and not just with feminists. Friedan saw a symptom that was more universal than she realized and thus had more causes than she knew. The loss of a “firm core of self” can have multiple proximate causes but, I will argue in this essay and the ones that follow, that it can have only one ultimate cause. Friedan argued that the ultimate cause was an inordinate sense of the identity-providing powers of full-time homemaking. But this was merely a proximate cause.

The Contemporary Empty Self

In other words, what Friedan thought was a fixed equation is actually one with a causative variable. Here is how she describes the process of how one’s identity fails to develop: “By the promise of magical fulfillment through marriagethe feminine mystique arrests [women’s] development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.”[4] The italicized words provide Friedan’s causal analysis of the feminine mystique, which she seems to think is essentially the problem. The solution: no feminine mystique. Result: no more symptoms.

In fact, however, we can modify this rigid causal equation with a more flexible one by replacing the italicized words with other causal variables and come up with equally plausible results. For example: “By the promise of magical fulfillment through entertainmentaddictive gaming arrests adolescent male development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.” Or: “By the promise of magical fulfillment through orgasmpornography arrests compulsive masturbators’ development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.”

Once one sets aside the variable proximate causes, the symptoms of ego-loss delineated by Friedan sound eerily familiar to us…

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