Point of View

50 years after ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ trading chains for handcuffs

March 10, 2013 

When Norton reissued “The Feminine Mystique” last month, I picked it up. I’d read excerpts before, in classes I’d taken and taught, but I hadn’t read the entire book. I was stunned by its relevance.

How could a book written for my mother’s generation still be applicable or appealing to me, a working mother, in 2013?

Each time I’ve taught the university course on contemporary women’s fiction, I’ve been struck by one of its key trajectories: the unhappiness of the modern moll. Over and over again, I’ve seen in the work I teach, my students and my colleagues a profound preoccupation with what Friedan calls “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction.” If so much has changed since Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” modern women still seem awfully unhappy.

Within her book, Friedan posits it’s because middle-class, educated women are trapped in the suburbs. Lonely and bored, they turn to alcohol and drugs to bear the ennui of their lives. She suggests that if women just got out and worked, they’d be happy – that in working lies an end to disenchantment.

But contemporary literature, psychological studies and women – both young and old – suggest this is not the case. Working has not made us happier. In spite of living the feminist dream, the women I see are tired, stressed and overworked. With the modern conveniences of BlackBerries and smartphones, we’re always on – waiting for the text from our bosses, our partners, our children, our children’s teachers, our parents, our neighbors. We’re hyper-attuned, always listening for the beep that warns us of the next emergency (no matter how small).

Our very connectivity creates anxiety. From a psychological point of view, we’re in a perpetual state of fight or flight. Friedan, I think, would take notice.

Once again, we’re responding to the situation by drugging ourselves. Statistics suggest that 1 in 4 university students is on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medicine. We take herbs to help us sleep, go to yoga classes, practice meditation and yet, as near as I can tell, these steps aren’t helping us, at least not collectively, at least not yet.

That sense of collectivity, which Friedan also identified, is important. As an English professor, I teach individuals: individual students and individual works. I’ve been trained and I train my students to read closely. But, like Friedan, by reading enough individuals – and enough stories – I’ve started to see a pattern, one, I think, unique to our sociohistorical moment.

If women’s unhappiness is nothing new, as Freud suggests, I do think women have of late grown unhappier. Writers and psychiatrists have it right in terms of case studies: looking at people closely reveals insights larger insights. Fiction’s focus on particular people speaks to the creation of modern identity – the notion of individuality, which remains the persistent way we see ourselves. The very popularity of novels, memoirs, talk shows and contemporary feminist accounts like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” or Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” suggest we’re still impressed by individual stories. We read about people we may not like but on some level we relate to.

Women read. And we talk about what we read. In small and large groups. Friedan’s study was one of the catalysts that began the consciousness-raising movement of the 1970s, when women began talking and then effectively worked for social change. But somewhere along the way the phenomenon turned into book clubs. What is it about stories about unhappy people that make women want to read, ruminate on and talk about them? What would Friedan say?

I think people are unhappy because we work long hours, struggle too much and worry and because our current cultural moment is the moment of the individual. And the public sense of self – as emblematized within novels, memoirs, blogs and articles – is unquestioningly anxious and unhappy.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Shteir laments contemporary works on women as being “too narcissistically self-helpy,” but this observation dismisses how important the individual and the individual account is. Our current historical moment is the moment of the story of private suffering, even as we talk about it publicly. The reissuing and relevance of “The Feminine Mystique” in 2013 suggests that not all that much has changed in the past 50 years, even if women have exchanged their domestic chains for corporate handcuffs.

It’s time to take a cue from Friedan. If turning off that smartphone isn’t a good first step, then perhaps turning the conversation outward is.

Katherine Montwieler is associate professor of English and women’s studies at UNC-Wilmington.

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