By Chet Yarbrough
The Feminine Mystique
By: Betty Friedan
Narration by: Parker Posey
By writing–women are human beings first–, Betty Friedan speaks truth to power. Friedan’s theme in The Feminine Mystique attempts to enlighten thick-headed males and doubting women about the equality of human beings. It is sad to realize that such a banal and obvious statement as “women are human beings first” so perfectly exposes the ignorance of prejudice.
Every rational human being has a brain that neurologically functions in the same way; i.e. through chemical and neural interconnection. This is not to suggest that brains are exactly alike; that interconnection is exactly the same, or that genetics do not matter. It is not to suggest that environment does not matter. What Friedan shows is that sexuality, color of one’s skin, and culture are influences that create prejudice while the brain is an infinitely malleable organ that carries the potential for genius as well as stupidity.
Friedan suggests the Oedipus complex and penis envy are male delusions about female sexuality, perpetrated by Sigmund Freud and endorsed by most intellectuals and academicians in the early 20th century. The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, acknowledges Freud’s great insight to the psychology of human beings but derides diagnosis of female hysteria as a valid mental disorder.
Female hysteria disappears from professional psychology schools in the mid-20th century. Friedan suggests female hysteria has little to do with sexuality, women’s menstruation, or change-of-life diagnosis. Her argument is that conversion disorder; hypochondria-sis, depression and anxiety in women are more likely caused by The Feminine Mystique, a false notion of a woman’s “role” in society; i.e. the idea that a woman can only be a spinster, wife, or mother.
Those roles limit the productive capability of half the human race. If a spinster chooses not to have a husband, there is more time to make productive contribution to the world. If a single woman chooses to be a wife, sharing the costs and burdens of domesticity, it leaves ample opportunity for other life interests; the same applies to motherhood. Being denied constructive opportunity drives women to the neuroses of the modern age.
A woman can be a spinster, wife, or mother but she can also be a scientist, a President, a business mogul, or a bum. The Feminine Mystique exposes the false premise that women are primarily breeders and caregivers rather than equals in humanities’ race for money, power, and prestige. What Friedan reveals in The Feminine Mystique is that women can bear children and be equally interested in and capable of excelling in the world of money, power, and prestige. However, women are frustrated by inequality of opportunity caused by The Feminine Mystique which identifies women in a role that should be shared by all members of the human race.
Birthing children is unique to women just as sperm production is unique to men. Beyond these unique capabilities, a world of opportunity is open to both men and women, but men have a culturally and historically defined advantage. Friedan defines men’s advantages by noting false barriers produced by psychologists like Freud that fail to understand they are discounting productive potential of half the human race.
Worse than the existence of barriers to equal opportunity for women, Friedan explains the unconscious conspiracy that pervades American culture. Freidan acknowledges it is not a cabal of men but that it is a pervasive misunderstanding of what a human being is.
The tragedy is that this misunderstanding becomes self-perpetuating. Advertising trades on sexual innuendo that perpetuates objectification of women; studies like the Kinsey report falsely infer natural sexuality is inhibited in women that have higher education; blame is placed on women for children that become delinquents because they are not always present as homemakers and caregivers.
Rationally, most people realize women are not sex objects. Advertising based on sexual innuendo is unlikely to change. The more ominous concerns raised by Friedan are false correlations suggesting higher education diminishes natural sexuality and that women (mothers) are primarily responsible for what children become as adults. Higher education is the primary hope for breaking the cycle of unequal treatment of women. Children become adults as a result of many things—not only from parenting but from genetics, health, and environment. Mothers are no more to blame than fathers who fail to share the responsibilities of home making and parenting.
Freidan’s concern is that women are not treated as equals even though women are approximately equal-in-number to men. Things have changed since 1963 but equality remains a work-in-process. Of the fortune 500 companies in the United States, only 25 have female CEOs. Women doing the same job as men in 2010 receive $.81 for every $1 paid to men, a 19% difference. Though house work is shared more now than in the 1960s, women work 18 hours a week homemaking while men work 10 hours a week (according to a PEW Research Study in 2011); i.e. the greatest burden remains with women. Without meaning to argue that the glass is half empty rather than half full, the revolution exemplified by Friedan’s book is incomplete. Many people continue to fight for equality of all human beings but many men and women continue to resist; to the detriment of society.
The Feminine Mystique should be required reading in high schools. It is as relevant today as it was in 1963.