Charlotte Kasper

My grandmother once told me that if The Feminine Mystique had come out five years earlier, my father wouldn’t have been born.  Her comment surprised me because, like many women today, I realize that The Feminine Mystique was important to second wave feminism, but also know that is incredibly exclusive and problematic.  I’ll admit that when I first read it, Betty Friedan’s words shifted something within me, creating a framework for my already developing notion of feminism.  But it seems that the more feminist works I read, the less The Feminine Mystique does to unite and empower all women.  

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Purchase The Feminine Mystique here!

I’ve forgotten, like many women, that we’re not so far removed from the days before second wave feminism and are, in many ways, regressing to them.  Recently, I sat down with my grandmother and asked her how the book impacted her life.  While The Feminine Mystique is foundational for myself and other feminists, when it first came out it was downright revolutionary, awakening my grandmother’s vivaciousness and inspiring her to return to education, transforming her entire life.

What my grandmother lacked in formal education, she made up for in her voracious appetite for literature.  Women were educated, my grandmother has told me, not for fulfillment, but for failure. That is to say that wealthy women attended college as a fail safe, so that they could find a suitable career if they weren’t able to marry.  Women of lower classes were more likely to marry men already in their lives, whereas women in higher classes would attempt to meet men outside of their scope at neighboring colleges. Seeing that my grandmother was neither upper class nor single by the time she left high school, there was no reason for her to receive an education.  My grandmother was nineteen when she became an at-home wife, younger than I am now.

It was 1963, and it was acceptable for women to work out of the house in nonprofits, like the League of Women Voters or the National Council for Jewish Women, but not for them to earn money because of how it reflected on their husbands.  However, after raising her three children to schooling age, my grandmother had to work to support the family.  Though my grandfather, a gentle and remarkably progressive man, helped out around the house my grandmother was spread so thin that she was once prescribed ‘pep pills,’ a then-common but powerful amphetamine.  Still a reader, she picked up The Feminine Mystique and devoured it.  Immediately, my grandmother felt that she had read something incredibly profound.  Realizing she could receive medical benefits and feed her intellectual appetite at the same time, she decided to begin college, earning a degree in education.  

Certain the book would resonate with other women, my grandmother tried to encourage others to read it, suggesting it to friends and family, even gifting her own copy to a stranger she met on a plane.  And though the book made an impact in liberating women, my grandmother found herself lucky in her choice of partner; while many of the women she spoke to wanted to follow her path, not all of their husbands allowed them to pursue an education.  The Feminine Mystique discussed a truth she had felt but had never spoken, it validated other forms of fulfillment, and, most important, showed her that she wasn’t alone.

The economic factor was important too.  Though aimed at upper middle class housewives, The Feminine Mystique diminished the stigma my grandparents felt as a family with two working parents.  For an already working wife, it provided the last push my grandmother needed to pursue the education she had desired and gave her the ability to educate others.  Eventually, my grandmother became an English teacher, specializing in minority literature. She then pursued a second masters and finished her career as a guidance counselor, which allowed her to both educate and nurture.  Years later, at a signing for Friedan’s second book, my grandfather would thank her, telling her how fully she had transformed their lives.

This said, The Feminine Mystique is not a perfect book and it never was. It was intended to speak to the women who seemingly ‘had it all’ and yet found themselves depressed and in doing this, excluded women of color and of lower incomes who didn’t necessarily have the privilege to question and seek self-actualization.  This was likely influenced by the women Betty Friedan herself was exposed to as an educated woman.  In fact, her circle of fellow Smith graduates influenced her understanding of ‘the problem that has no name’ which discusses the lack of fulfillment felt by American housewives.  In a pre-Internet world not only were class and race lines more divided but it was also more difficult for women to connect with one another at all, nevermind connect with women of other classes, races, and experiences.

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If modern feminism is to be more mindful, then intersectionality is crucial to its development.

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While a teacher, my grandmother remembers attending a conference where a black woman discussed feminist literature, explicitly stating that The Feminine Mystique didn’t resonate with her.  If modern feminism is to be more mindful, then intersectionality is crucial to its development.  And though The Feminine Mystique was revolutionary, the narrowness of its audience means that we should place other feminist works, like that of bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa, not necessarily above but rather among it in importance.  Just because wealthy housewives were privileged doesn’t mean they weren’t suffering, it’s that the suffering experienced by women was different.  For this reason, it’s paramount to create a multidimensional understanding of women’s varied experiences.  At the very least, this can help create a fuller foundation for modern feminism.  Today, there’s more conversation on intersectionality in all forms, especially within race and the LGBT+ community, which is incredible, and reading these only provide a fuller image of the movement.

I asked my grandmother if she found fulfillment after reading The Feminine Mystique.  In everything she accomplished: her two masters, her work as a guidance counselor and educator on black and marginalized literature, she found fulfillment and yet, she never found more than in her job as a mother.  And here lies the other true problem with The Feminine Mystique: in order to empower women to work outside of the house, it disavowed homemaking, ignoring the contentment some women find within the house and alienating another group of women.  If my grandmother has taught me one thing about feminism, it’s this: feminism isn’t only about liberating women of all identities, it’s about providing us with the opportunity to choose our own path to self-actualization.

 

Charlotte Kasper is an Art History and American Studies double major at Wellesley College, interested in pursuing a career in academia or museums.  Aside from art and writing, she loves watching comedy specials, enjoying time outdoors, meditating, and listening to music.

 

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