One might presume that after nearly two hundred years
of battling for equality
, women would have gained some ground
, yet even after all this struggle
, by the mid-ninteen forties patterns of liberation
were already starting to reverse themselves.
Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique deals with this reversal. To do so, first she deconstructs women's magazines, then women themselves, then the society that is urging them to accept their roles as mother, wife and homemaker. The burning problem described in the book seems to be one of general uncertainty. Women are dissatisfied with their lives because they are uncertain how their newly-earned rights and education can find an outlet in the stifling atmosphere of marriage and home. Society is uncertain of what effect these "new women" will have, indeed if they have a place at all and are not merely an aberration.
Freidan's advice to women is education; refusal of the shackles offered by security, and to find a more personal happiness on equal terms with men. This may seem to be sound and correct advice, but this book was written in 1963— a fact that should be banging on the head of any cognizant reader. Nearly a century after Uncle Tom's Cabin women are still being separated and delineated from men. A century later advice is still being offered on how to gain their freedom. After a hundred years the shackles are still there, perhaps a bit looser and certainly more aesthetic, but just as debilitating and dehumanizing.
It is this dehuminazaition that is the fuel for a societal system that keeps members productive and content. By limiting an individual's role in a society to a work/consumption unit, people begin to see themselves in terms of how hard they can work, how much they can earn, and in what ways they can conspicuously spend their reward— so that others can see how valuable they are to the societal structure. Extrapolating this to women and their role in the ninteen-forties and fifties, it is easy to see how middle and upper middle class women could see themselves not as a complex system of desires, hopes and ambitions, but rather a simplified version based on goals of work and reward.
Men were not immune to this system. They would succumb to the role of provider and protector, and in certain ways were just as trapped as their wives. In fact, books like Fire in The Belly by Keen and Iron John by Bly seem to voice the same problem, opinion and solution to men as Freidan offers to women. Thus, both groups feel trapped in their roles and lack the essential freedom that would enable them to liberate themselves.
With this in mind, it is difficult to come to grips with The Feminine Mystique . When both groups feel manipulated, where does the blame lie? A final analysis does not seem possible; when retribution is not an available option political and social catharsis is stymied, and the only other avenue of action is a slow and subtle change. In this case, Freidan's advice appears to be a good solution, however, freedom is a nebulous thing—its immediate birth and demise may be a natural cycle; its permanence a mere illusion.