by Betty Friedan
When Friedman’s book was first published in 1963 it was a completely revolutionary text. It’s credited with starting the second wave of feminism and changing the way people view working women. Though much has changed in the past 50 years, the issue of gender inequality is still very much present today.
There are elements in the book that I strongly agree with. For example living through only your husband and kids’ lives will end up a frustrating mess for everyone involved. Pursuing interests outside of your spouse and kids is crucial to remind yourself that you are your own person outside of their sphere. However, I think that comparing being a stay-at-home mom to being sent to a concentration camp is a bit much. I understand what she’s saying, the similarity lies in the stripping away of outside relationships and interests, but it’s taking it too far to compare the two. I know that many “stay-at-home” moms in the 1950s were addicted to tranquiller and alcohol because of a deep-seated unhappiness, but getting married and having children is a choice. Being shipped off to a concentration camp and watching your fellow prisoners be killed is not.
In the past 50 years expectations of women have changed and there are now different factors affecting the roles women take. It's much more socially acceptable for women to work and for men help with household chores than it was in the 1950s. Regardless of whether or not the woman stays home with the kids, the roles seem to have become more equalized.
I love the role that pop culture has played in continuing to change views. TV shows like Parks and Recreation and The Good Wife continue to discuss women’s evolving roles without letting that become the central focus of the show. They are shown in positions of power in the working world but that’s never an issue on the shows. In this season of Grey’s Anatomy they’ve discussed the difficulties working moms face and the pressure put on women to have children when they don’t want to.
Women also now have the option of working from home, something that was unheard of in the 1960s. A woman can run a photography or freelance business from a home office instead of from a corporate office. Options like these have changed the playing field, but that doesn’t mean women are being paid the same salaries as men in the same positions. The line between "career woman” and “stay-at-home mom” might have become blurred as the possibilities increased, but it hasn’t been eliminated.
The feminine mystique talks in detail about how women’s sexual lives have often corresponded with their role in society. I think it's important to remember while reading those sections that when they talk about a woman enjoying sex it's not about the act of sex as much as it is about the fact that she thinks she has the right to enjoy it. Throughout history sex has often been treated as an obligation for women, something they are expected to provide for their husbands; their enjoyment was not a factor. What the feminine mystique points out is that women's enjoyment tends to correspond with how they view themselves and how they view sex. Is it an obligation they have to suffer through or is it something that they are doing with the partner out of a mutual desire.
In the book Friedman talks about some research done on how long housework takes if your stay-at-home mom versus a working mom. The conclusion was that most working mothers got it done in half the time. The author’s theory is that women stretch the work to fill their days to justify being at home. I don't know if that's true or not but it's interesting. Especially since this was written when huge advances were being made in household appliances. Dish washers, washers, dryers, kitchen mixers, these devices supposedly cut work time in half but the author and researchers found that the women just made more complicated recipes and did the laundry twice as often, washing sheets twice a week instead of once. One bachelor even made the claim that he could run most households in half the time that women did. When outraged women told him to prove it he did, taking over the four child household of one woman for a period of time. At the end of the time she even admitted he was the better cook.
BOTTOM LINE: This book gave me so much to think about and there’s a lot to be learned from the experiences of other women. I don't have kids and I've never been a stay-at-home mom so take my opinion with a huge grain of salt, but there’s a lot to be said for maintaining your own interests and friendships outside of your husband and children. I think it boils down to the pressure we put in ourselves to do the "right" thing in society’s eyes. Whether that is being staying at home or having a career, we create these standards that we have to hold our life to and then we can't help but feel overwhelmed when we fail. Finding the right balance in your own life is crucial and it’s different for every person.