As you may recall I am listening to The Feminine Mystique in the bathtub. If, sometime soon, you hear that they found my dead, bloated body in a the tub with blood running from my ears it will not be from a self-inflicted anything, it will be because my brain exploded from exasperation and rage.
Today while listening to The Mystique, as I like to call it, I learned about what a large role women’s magazines (think Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s) played in not only perpetuating the mystique, but kind of inventing it. Like I mentioned last time, there was a shift in mid-40s in the way women were portrayed in these magazines. Women went from being career-minded to housewife-minded, and not just housewife-minded but to the point where any woman who wanted/sought a career was seen as masculine and a failure as a woman. A failure.
Not only that but the stories the magazines ran always, always had to do with housewifery — the fiction, the profiles — all of it. It was a popularly held belief that women didn’t care about anything “they couldn’t relate to.” She points out how even when they were writing about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, it was about how she found such simple beauty in making a fucking pie or some bullshit like that.
Friedan digs in and tries to get to the bottom of what changed. After talking to a few female editors of the magazines, here’s what she found out: men came back from WWII. These men, having just suffered through the inhumanity of war came back and were looking for “home.” Not only did they oust the women as the editors of the women’s magazines they slowly changed the perspective these magazines offered. Gone were the stories of adventurous career women, gone was the fiction by Faulkner (I KNOW!), now all the stories were about how your one purpose in life was to get married, pump out some kids, and provide your family with a happy, clean home.
This search for and redefinition of home effected US society on a grand scale. Friedan pointed out how in the 30s and 40s the most famous Hollywood actresses were the sexy, siren, sassy broads and dames. Think Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Bette Davis. In the 50s it changed to innocent sex kittens like Debbie Reynolds, Marilyn Monroe, and Bridget Bardot.
And then she started talking politics, and that’s when the tiny explosions happened in my brain and hot, angry tears shot from eyes. Friedan quoted a speech Adlai Stevenson gave as a commencement address to the graduates of Smith College (you know the women’s college) called “The Purpose of Modern Women:”
You may be hitched to one of these creatures we call “Western man” and I think part of your job is to keep him Western, to keep him truly purposeful, to keep him whole. In short–while I have had very little experience as a wife or mother–I think one of the biggest jobs for many of you will be to frustrate the crushing and corrupting effects of specialization, to integrate means and ends, to develop that balanced tension of mind and spirit which can be properly called “integrity.”
This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, has great advantages.
In the first place, it is home work–you can do it in the living-room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand. If you’re really clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television!
He finishes up with this rousing sentiment to the college graduates of 1955 . .
In modern America the home is not the boundary of a woman’s life. There are outside activities aplenty. But even more important is the fact, surely, that what you have learned and can learn will, fit you for the primary task of making homes and whole human beings in whom the rational values of freedom, tolerance, charity and free inquiry can take root.
Damn. As I listen to the book and learn more about the feminist struggle I get angrier and angrier. Why didn’t we ever talk about this stuff before? Why wasn’t The Feminine Mystique taught to us in high school. Because it should have been, it probably still should be.