As a millennial woman, I first read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” with a sense of familiarity. It was familiar to me not only because I recognized in it the feminist arguments of today (many attribute to the work the launching of the second wave of feminism) or that I recognized certain women that I knew. in its pages.
It was rather familiar to me because it reminded me of a work published more than a hundred years before its time: “Madame Bovary”.
The French classic is the story of a beautiful and charming woman who marries a drab but decent country doctor. Emma Bovary is perpetually agitated and usually unpleasant.
She longs for the romanticism detailed in her dog-eared novels and becomes corrupted by their ideology. Emma’s virtues, like her desires, turn out to be illusory.
Friedan’s work is a series of accounts and analyzes of the 1950s-middle to upper-class American housewife: lonely, bored and disgruntled. Modern technologies have freed her from prolonged housework and a national education system occupies her children during their days. She is left to herself, consumed by nothing.
Because the wives of Friedan and Gustave Flaubert have fleeting rather than imperious interests. They are in a crisis of unfulfilled domestic life.
Motherhood is meaningless to Emma; her nature is so transformed by romanticism that she is incapable of transcendent joy. Friedan’s women are also disconnected from their children and their concern grows with the autonomy of their children.
Modernity and romanticism are frequent causes of these feminine feelings. Friedan’s housewife and Flaubert’s Emma are women of comfort and leisure; they are middle class and distinguished, educated and financially secure enough to escape the need for work.
But abundant leisure and comfort often leads to dissatisfaction. Twice as many retirees feel depressed like those who work. And money doesn’t buy happiness once your needs are met. Modernity sometimes distributes emptiness in exchange for material luxury.
Romanticism and imagination also attack languid people. Emma reads too many sensational novels, cheap stories that entertain rather than offer ethics education (like Jane Austen). She becomes a consumerist, spending beyond her means in a hollow attempt to fill her void with things.
The 1950s in America also offered such distractions. From 1949 to 1950, American households were already watch approximately 4.5 hours of television per day. Television’s longest-running soap opera premiered in 1952. And 75% of all consumer advertising budgets were spent to attract women.
Women of that time, like Emma, could get lost in the promises and bombardments of television, fashion magazines and consumerism. Their imaginations could create comparisons and illusions that left them disappointed and out of touch with reality.
Although not mentioned by Friedan, another reason for the boredom of American women in this era was the decline of civic associations and private philanthropy, a political sphere heavily shaped by women in the past. Because the social tradition of married women without a job at the beginning of America had led to a vast female volunteerism.
As Marvin Olasky describes, “During the 1820s, groups such as the United Female Benevolent Society of North Carolina (Fayetteville), the Female Benevolent Society (Newbern, North Carolina), the Female Benevolent Society (Raleigh), and the Female Charitable Society (St Louis) emerged. … In the 1830s, this kind of activity was going on so much that it was said that American Christianity was promoting a “benevolent empire”.
Such projects have given women a sense of Christian purpose (a value beyond Emma’s dabbling). Many of these programs have been deliberately designed to prepare citizens for self-government, teaching them the skills and discipline necessary to move them towards independence.
Although the vast majority of women were unable to vote during this time, civic responsibility in America extends beyond the ballot box. Through civic associations, the first American women led not only their children but also their fellow citizens in the art of self-government, participating in and carrying on the highest promise of Republican politics.
The first decades of the 1900s marked a shift in philanthropy in America. Government programs began to emerge, professionals (rather than volunteers) worked in charities, and the better-off resided in communities separate from those receiving their assistance. All this philanthropy and volunteerism displaced, to “Initially, the willingness to give money increased as the desire to give time decreased.”
The philosophy behind philanthropy has also changed; he began to speak of material needs and virtues, rather than spiritual and civic ones. It was less substantial and therefore offered less meaning to those who engaged in it. A way for the religious and civic contribution of women has been blocked by the decrease in civic associations.
Deprived of such meaningful engagement, the well-to-do women organized endless activities for themselves, according to Friedan. One of his case study notes, “I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do: hobbies, gardening, marinating, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, organizing PTA teas. ”
This portrait is that of an individual aimlessly filling hours of distraction and engaging in very intensive parenting. This is in stark contrast to Olasky’s dynamic description of higher service and citizenship from an earlier era.
Friedan attributed women’s troubles primarily to their roles as housewives and the monotony of housework, and so her alternative was for women to pursue careers. She usually masked such careers in romanticism and the American appeal of high performance: women could divide atoms, enter space, create art that illuminates human destiny and be pioneers at the frontiers of society.
These aren’t women who have to work shifts in a hospital or restaurant to make ends meet (often a more realistic picture of the job). Friedan’s feminists are the elites whose comfort, like Emma’s, is provided by their husbands.
They can escape the harshness that often accompanies work when it is a necessity. Flaubert used the tragic outcome of Emma’s romantic delusions (Emma herself commits suicide) to capture the need for realism in the reader’s mind; Friedan attracts his readers with selected illustrations.
There are reasons to be wary of both the accuracy of Friedan’s analysis and his motivations. Her account of domestic life is extremely critical, but some polls contradict her conclusions and she has misrepresented others.
Consider Jane Austen as an alternative, who shows family life to be intriguing, vibrant, and filled with daily episodes of excellence and elegance. Austen is devoid of illusion, so his portrayals, although working in fiction, appear genuine.
Friedan’s work has been read by countless women, but how much has it resonated because of his feminist arguments over his account of the sterile emptiness of American life in the 1950s?
Had something gone wrong in society and in the hearts of these women for deeper reasons? Did women then have faith in his solutions because his descriptions hit the mark? At what price ?
Looking back, it seems the price for indulging in Friedan’s romance has been paid by more than his target audience. Now the unrest, selfishness, consumerism, and goal crisis detailed by Friedan has spread to American men (in part because of some of the changes the Sexual Revolution precipitated) and even throughout the West.
In 2014, life expectancy in the United States began to decline, largely due to deaths from “Drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis”. The birth rate has dropped.
It is now more common for both men and women to share the tragedies portrayed by Flaubert. Many modern people, like Emma, are no longer able to find purpose or fulfillment in having children.
Because why would people want to have children when we are killing ourselves? Although Flaubert’s work was written before Friedan’s, his romanticism proves his realism’s foreknowledge of the future of the West.
This piece was originally posted on Law & Freedom.
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