Monday, December 21, 2009

What Betty Did Write: The Making of the Feminine Mystique

(The following article was part of a multimedia presentation for my reporting for the internet class. The basis for my presentation was "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan and its journalistic merit. Two other components, including a podcast discussing the significance of liberal feminism for today's world and a video about OU's WGS program will follow shortly.)

Betty Friedan did so many things right when she produced the Feminine Mystique in 1963:

· She asked questions.
· She analyzed the responses.
· She detected a trend.
· She wrote and rewrote.
· She did not give up.

Today’s journalists and authors do well to follow her timeless techniques.

“The Feminine Mystique” needs very little introduction. It is still discussed in women’s studies classes and available in bookstores. It is considered to be the quintessential feminist text.

Friedan herself is the stuff of feminist legend. Known for her abrasive personality, she founded the National Organization for Women and became its first president.

It is Friedan’s brand of liberal feminism that most people still associate with feminism today. Friedan and her followers envisioned legal equality for men and women achieved through reform of the current system. They were gender focused, challenging traditional societal roles. Their strategy for liberation was, “get a job, ladies.”

The book opens with the much quoted passage, “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.” (Friedan, p. 57) Friedan called this the “problem with no name.” She experienced it herself, and soon came to discover she was not alone.

Friedan was a psychology major at Smith College. She went on to advanced studies at Berkley. After she married her husband, Carl, and started a family, she began freelance writing for women’s magazines.

For her 15th college reunion, in 1957, Friedan was asked to prepare a questionnaire. She asked her classmates such soul-searching questions as:

· “What difficulties have you found in working out your role as a woman?
· What are the chief satisfactions and frustrations of your life today?
· How do you feel about getting older?
· How have you changed inside?
· What do you wish you’d done differently?” (Cohen, p. 89)

“I didn’t realize it at the time,” she said, “but I was asking the questions that were beginning to concern me.” (Cohen, p. 89)

As Friedan analyzed the responses, a trend became apparent. The answers expressed a sense of emptiness, guilt, shame, uncertainty, and indecision. Here, Freidan discovered, were educated women who were not happy with the domestic status quo as they were supposed to be.

Initially, Friedan used her data to write an article entitled, “The Togetherness Woman,” which she submitted to McCall’s. In her bold style, she blasted the idea of women living life vicariously through their husbands and children. Essentially togetherness was a fraud, she said.

Not surprisingly, the article was rejected.

She rewrote the article and submitted it to Ladies’ Home Journal where it was edited to make the opposite point. Friedan refused to let it be published.

Redbook expressed an interest in a piece based on her college questionnaires, but said it would need to be expanded to include younger women and more data. So, Friedan did more research and found the same results in younger women. She rewrote the piece again, but in the end was told it was not publishable because only “the most neurotic women” would identify with it.

Friedan became depressed, but regrouped and identified the problem – the women’s magazines themselves. By going through countless back issues, Friedan noticed another trend.
Between 1939 and 1949, Friedan found, “a change in the image of the American woman and in the boundaries of the woman’s world …” (Friedan, p. 85)

The heroines of women’s magazine fiction had lives of their own. They were career women, and almost never housewives. They maintained their individuality, and their men loved them for it.
Then, somewhere around 1949, “the image blurs …” Friedan said, and those bold, independent women “rushed back to the cozy walls of home” (Friedan, p. 89) to become happy housewives – and their real-life counterparts did the same.

Why, Friedan asked, when the boundaries of the human world were expanding, were women limiting themselves in this way? Was this domestic, “feminine mystique” being sold by patriarchal society keeping American women from growing with the world?

There was something bigger here, Friedan decided, and her project had to be bigger. It would be a book.

After approximately four more years of asking questions, analyzing the results, looking for trends, writing and rewriting, the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, there is debate today about whether Betty Friedan’s brand of feminism is still relevant in today’s world. None-the-less, Friedan was unafraid to speak – and write – her mind undeterred in the face of rejection.

Cohen, Marcia. “The Sisterhood: The true story of the women who changed the world.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Friedan, Betty. “The Feminine Mystique (with an introduction by Anna Quindlen.)” New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc, 2001.

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