Humanity & the Mystique

I finally finished Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I don’t believe that I’m overstating when I say that this book has made an impact on my life greater than any other work of non-fiction I’ve read. I found myself amazed, shocked, confused, and simultaneously enthralled at various points in time.  I think that is mostly because it led me to question my own beliefs and upbringing. It also made wonder at the experiences of my mother and grandmothers.  Would they find themselves summed up in Betty’s words? Would they agree that they have suffered through the trials and tribulations of being “only a housewife”, never free to become themselves? Would they see the same effect of the mystique on their children and grandchildren as Betty does? I can only wonder at this point.

The women who raised me were not feminists, nor were the men. In fact homophobia, sexism, and racism are all not-so-subtle ingredients in my family stew. But somehow I came out thinking that all people should be treated equally, as humans, despite any sociopoliticalgenderwhatever differences that may exist. I got lucky in that regard. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect in that respect; unfortunately there are old attitudes and prejudices that have yet to be eradicated which occasionally catch me unawares. I think that’s why feminism has always held some fascination for me because it’s something I feel like I know nothing about. Am I a feminist? I don’t honestly know…

Being raised in the Midwest, coming of age in small-town Southern Illinois, and then being educated as an engineer in a Midwestern state-run college really didn’t afford me much of an opportunity to explore the classics of feminist literature.  At least they were never encouraged or seen as important to many who educated me.  I’ve dated women who would call themselves feminists and I feel like I’ve gotten to know bits and pieces about the philosophy from them. And I’ve had several friends who would certainly call themselves feminist, but I felt like it was time to start learning for myself what feminism is.

My first foray into feminist literature was Bell Hooks’ All About Love which was a bad choice; I feel like it taught me little and I came away unsatisfied.  Grabbing hold of The Feminine Mystique was exactly the opposite; it relates (ad nauseum) the experience of women Betty encountered in the 60s who were suffering from some unexplainable malady. The “problem with no name”, as she called it, had its roots firmly in the way in which women, subtlety disenfranchised by society, are taught to aspire to be something which does not fulfill the longings and desires of any person.  This mystique sets up false expectations that only let down those which pursue it.  Chiefly, it teaches that being a housewife should be enough to satisfy any woman and that, if you’re not satisfied in that role, there must be something wrong with you as a woman.

Betty goes on to spend the majority of the book picking apart the mystique, identifying several places where it has had an impact on the American woman, and her husband, her children, her sex life, her sense of self, her purpose in life. I found it depressing thinking that this was the true lives of people just like my mother and grandmother.  Moreover, it left me thinking that my sister, cousins, nieces could potentially be subjected to similar undermining and subtle messages from our society that could lead them to a similar self-image and criticism today.  Has the Feminine Mystique passed us by, or is just as real today as it was in 1963?

I know that I see the effect of the feminine mystique in my own life, from my relationships with girlfriends to how I was raised and loved by my family. I think the book provides some powerful insight into the relationships we have with all of the women in our lives. By way of abstraction, I think it speaks more about humanity than it does women alone. The central message to me was that all humans absolutely must be free to pursue and excel at something for which they have passion, no matter what it is.  I think the secondary message to me was that living your life for someone or something else can never lead to true happiness; happiness cannot be found by living through the lives of others. You absolutely must live your own life following your own passions and pursuits.

I don’t think I have a lot of insight other than that; I feel like I’m still processing it all.  Now I need to drive into my next work of feminist lit.  Suggestions?

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