Monday, February 06, 2006

Betty Friedan -- a quote, and a brief meditation on her writing style

Betty Friedan died over the weekend, at 85. She was a pioneer of the women's movement, starting with The Feminine Mystique (1963), the National Organization for Women (which she founded), and her ongoing activism on associated causes through the 1970s and 80s. There's a decent profile of Betty Friedan at the Washington Post.

Also, I came across chapter 1 of The Feminine Mystique online at H-Net, in case anyone wants a little review. (India plays an interesting cameo role.)

From that first chapter, I'd like to share four paragraphs that really stand out to me. It's where she introduces the "problem that has no name," namely the malaise of the middle-class suburban housewife:

For over fifteen years women in America found it harder to talk about the problem than about sex. Even the psychoanalysts had no name for it. When a woman went to a psychiatrist for help, as many women did, she would say, "I'm so ashamed," or "I must be hopelessly neurotic." "I don't know what's wrong with women today," a suburban psychiatrist said uneasily. "I only know something is wrong because most of my patients happen to be women. And their problem isn't sexual." Most women with this problem did not go to see a psychoanalyst, however. "There's nothing wrong really," they kept telling themselves, "There isn't any problem."

But on an April morning in 1959, I heard a mother of four, having coffee with four other mothers in a suburban development fifteen miles from New York, say in a tone of quiet desperation, "the problem." And the others knew, without words, that she was not talking about a problem with her husband, or her children, or her home. Suddenly they realized they all shared the same problem, the problem that has no name. They began, hesitantly, to talk about it. Later, after they had picked up their children at nursery school and taken them home to nap, two of the women cried, in sheer relief, just to know they were not alone.

Gradually I came to realize that the problem that has no name was shared by countless women in America. As a magazine writer I often interviewed women about problems with their children, or their marriages, or their houses, or their communities. But after a while I began to recognize the telltale signs of this other problem. I saw the same signs in suburban ranch houses and split-levels on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester County; in colonial houses in a small Massachusetts town; on patios in Memphis; in suburban and city apartments; in living rooms in the Midwest. Sometimes I sensed the problem, not as a reporter, but as a suburban housewife, for during this time I was also bringing up my own three children in Rockland County, New York. I heard echoes of the problem in college dormitories and semiprivate maternity wards, at PTA meetings and luncheons of the League of Women Voters, at suburban cocktail parties, in station wagons waiting for trains, and in snatches of conversation overheard at Schrafft's. The groping words I heard from other women, on quiet afternoons when children were at school or on quiet evenings when husbands worked late, I think I understood first as a woman long before I understood their larger social and psychological implications.

Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say "I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete." Or she would say, "I feel as if I don't exist." Sometimes she blotted out the feeling with a tranquilizer. Sometimes she thought the problem was with her husband or her children, or that what she really needed was to redecorate her house, or move to a better neighborhood, or have an affair, or another baby. Sometimes, she went to a doctor with symptoms she could hardly describe: "A tired feeling. . . I get so angry with the children it scares me . . . I feel like crying without any reason." (A Cleveland doctor called it "the housewife's syndrome.") A number of women told me about great bleeding blisters that break out on their hands and arms. "I call it the house wife's blight" said a family doctor in Pennsylvania. "I see it so often lately in these young women with four, five and six children who bury themselves in their dishpans. But it isn't caused by detergent and it isn't cured by cortisone."

These paragraphs are for me the rhetorical equivalent of the "establishing shot": Friedan describes her personal investment in the problem (she herself has raised a family), hints at the methodology by which she's derived her present conclusions, hints strongly at what she thinks causes it, and wraps it up nicely with a memorable tagline ("the problem that has no name"). As social manifestos go, it doesn't get much better.

What I find interesting reading this today is the extent to which Friedan's writing in The Feminine Mystique works a kind of alarmist rhetoric -- why are women getting married younger and younger in the 1950s?!?! why are they suddenly having so many kids?!?! The Feminine Mystique encouraged a generation of women to challenge the expectations and restrictions that were placed on them, but it did so using some very familiar rhetorical conventions.

One could probably argue based on this that the book is no longer relevant. But to me it's actually encouraging because it suggests you don't need to reinvent the wheel to write something that really makes a difference. You just need to do your homework, show conviction, and above all, be right. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan does all three.


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