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At home, as well as on the job, basic legal protections we now take for granted didn’t exist or were generally ignored, whether for sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or rape. Abortion, of course, was illegal, and birth control for single women was difficult, if not impossible, to come by.
Nor did the therapeutic professions offer much comfort to women seeking help, whether to escape from violent relationships or to further their personal or career development. Indeed, reinforcing the mindset of the feminine mystique was the prevalence of Freudian ideas about women who castrated their men and made their children neurotic through “smother-love” (beware those mother fixations!) or became “icebox mothers,” who didn’t care enough and “caused” their kids to become autistic. Such messages could be wildly contradictory as to why this was all the fault of women, but the finger of social blame was somehow always pointed at them, even by the psychology profession. Indeed, in the same year that The Feminine Mystique was published, one psychiatrist opined that most family ills could be traced to women’s “distorted perceptions” and lack of understanding of the “feminine social role.”
If the retrospective shock of the reality of the bad old days is nothing less than bracing, then imagine the revelatory impact upon first reading Friedan in 1963. “I thought I must be crazy” was the most common refrain Coontz read in the numerous letters women wrote thanking Friedan for her book shortly after its publication. Even decades later, in the 188 retrospective interviews Coontz conducted as part of her research, she heard the phrase again and again. One woman had felt only worse after seeing two psychiatrists, she told Coontz; then she read Friedan’s book, and she “realized that what I thought might be wrong with me, was in fact right with me!” As the renowned social scientist Lillian Rubin, who read the book in 1963 when her own life was in flux, put it, “It was like having a pain and finally your doctor tells you, your pain actually has a source. You aren’t imagining it.”
The validation, insight, and vision of untapped possibilities in its pages made The Feminine Mystique more than just a self-help book, Coontz writes, but the one and only self-help book that many women ever needed. In a welcome relief from Freudian ideals of femininity, Friedan emphasized Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, which posited that beyond the basic needs of survival, women, as well as men, needed self-esteem, respect, and ways to fulfill their creative, intellectual, and moral potential.
To be sure, not everyone received The Feminine Mystique with enthusiasm, including those criticizing Friedan in 1963 (and even now) for ignoring women who didn’t fall within the white, educated, middle-class audience she’d targeted. Many women who were compelled to work to make a living—and then go home to the “second shift” of family responsibilities—couldn’t identify with “the feminine mystique,” and felt insulted by Friedan’s sometimes-demeaning attitude toward housework and the low-paying jobs that often were the only ones open to them. At the same time, Coontz relates, because of their unfamiliarity with Freudian ideas, many of these women tended to experience less guilt and self-doubt about their dual roles in and out of the household than the more highly educated women who had access to psychotherapy.
Nor did Friedan’s book address the ways in which many black women had been successfully combining family, career, and social activism for decades. Coontz writes: “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”
So why did Friedan’s book seem purposefully to ignore blue-collar housewives and African American women? Coontz believes that Friedan, a lifelong union supporter and leftist living in post-McCarthy America, consciously chose to downplay her own political background, along with her personal beliefs about class oppression and her support for the civil-rights movement. These omissions no doubt helped her avoid being branded as even more radical than she was, and allowed the publisher to focus its marketing efforts on a specific audience and demographic. But, Coontz asserts, by avoiding class and race issues, she missed the chance to use working-class white and African American women as examples of how to combine the roles and identities of wife and mother with job-holder or community activist.
Throughout, Coontz gives Friedan her due, the bad along with the good. Yes, Coontz writes, Friedan was prone to overstatement. To heighten the sense of the psychosocial plight of women in 1963, she highlighted the historical victory of the early women’s movement in winning the vote, while exaggerating women’s indifference to pursuing further goals in the 1930s and 1940s. Her repeated expressions of homophobia are now shocking to encounter, and she ignored the examples of working-class women and contributions of African American women who were among the early leaders of the civil-rights movement.
Friedan’s acute critique of what she called “the sexual sell” advertisers use to tap into women’s anxiety about their sexual attractiveness (their “hotness” in today’s terms) and mothering abilities (the pressure, these days, to be SuperMom) still resonates. Her emphasis on the importance of genuine, meaningful work for women—whether for pay, full-time, part-time, or as a volunteer—continues to empower women of all segments of society. Coontz points to the fact that the divorce rate has dropped in recent decades from its peak of 22.8 per 1,000 couples in 1979 to 16.7 per 1,000 couples in 2005. That this rate is lowest in states where a greater percentage of married women work outside the home, Coontz believes, bears out Friedan’s prediction that encouraging women’s sense of independence and individuality would lead to stronger domestic partnerships.
Coontz fills her book with so many affecting stories of women whose lives Friedan’s book changed that as I read, I couldn’t help thinking of my own mother, who’d left behind a career running kindergartens for the children of working women during World War II to marry my father and raise my brothers and me. And yet—or perhaps because of her own abandoned professional dreams—Mom absolutely instilled in me the importance of finding a way to balance career and family. “Don’t get stuck,” was the way Mom put it—her own shorthand for the feminine mystique that had thwarted some of her own aspirations. It’s a thread of personal history I hadn’t teased out until now, and I have Stephanie Coontz to thank—and by extension, Betty Friedan—for changing my life, too.
New York City-based Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, and writes for many national publications. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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