As a millennial woman, I first read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique with a sense of familiarity. It wasn’t just known because I saw in it the feminist arguments of today (many appreciate the work in sparking the second wave of feminism) or because I recognized certain women I knew on their pages. I was more familiar with it because it reminded me of a work published over a hundred years before its time: Madame Bovary.
The French classic is about a beautiful and charming woman who marries a boring but decent country doctor. Emma Bovary is always restless and disgusting with the ordinary. She longs for the romance described in her dog-eared novels and is corrupted by her ideology. Emma’s virtues as well as her desires prove to be illusory.
Friedan’s work is a series of accounts and analyzes of middle- to upper-class American housewives of the 1950s: lonely, bored, and dissatisfied. Modern technologies have freed them from tedious housework, and a national education system keeps their children busy during their days. She is left to herself and consumed by nothing.
Because both Friedan’s and Flaubert’s wives have temporary rather than compelling interests. You are experiencing an unfulfilled crisis of purpose in domestic life. Motherhood doesn’t mean anything to Emma; Her nature is so altered by romance that she is unable to have transcendent joy. Friedan’s wives are also separated from their children, and their unrest grows with the independence of their children.
Modernism and romance are common causes of these feminine feelings. Friedan’s housewife and Flaubert’s Emma are women with comfort and leisure; They belong to the middle and upper class, are educated and financially secure enough to avoid the necessity of work. But a lot of free time and comfort often lead to dissatisfaction. Retirees are twice as likely to feel depressed as those in employment. And money doesn’t buy happiness when one’s needs are met. Modernity sometimes distributes the void in exchange for material luxury.
Romance and imagination are also victims of indolence. Emma reads too many sensational novels, cheap stories that are entertaining rather than ethical (like Jane Austen). She becomes a consumer and spends money beyond her means to fill her emptiness with things.
America’s 1950s were such distractions too. By 1949-1950, American households were watching TV for about 4.5 hours a day. The longest running soap opera on television premiered in 1952. 75% of all consumer advertising budgets were spent on targeting women. Women of the day, like Emma, could get lost in the promises and bombings of television, style magazines, and consumerism. Their ideas could make comparisons and illusions that disappointed them and uncoupled them from reality.
Although not mentioned by Friedan, another reason American women were bored at the time was the decline of civic associations and private philanthropy, a political sphere that in the past was largely shaped by women. Because the social tradition of married women who had no jobs in early America had led to extensive female volunteering. Marvin Olasky describes: “In the 1820s groups such as the United Female Benevolent Society in North Carolina (Fayetteville), the Female Benevolent Society (Newbern, NC), the Female Benevolent Society (Raleigh), and the Female Charitable Society (St. Louis ) showed up … So much of this type of activity was going on by the 1830s that American Christianity was reportedly promoting a ‘Benevolent Empire’. Such projects gave women a sense of Christian intent (a value that eludes Emma’s gimmick). .
Many of these programs were purposely designed to equip citizens for self-government and to teach them the skills and discipline to move them toward independence. Although the vast majority of women were unable to vote during this period, civil responsibility in America goes beyond the ballot box. Through civic associations, early American women introduced not only their children but also their fellow citizens to the art of self-government, and shared in and upholding the highest promise of republican politics.
The first decades of the 20th century marked a shift in philanthropy in America. Government programs emerged, professionals (rather than volunteers) worked in charities, and the wealthy lived in communities separate from those who received their support. All of these supplanted philanthropy and volunteering, because “at first the willingness to give money grew with a decreasing desire to give time”.
The philosophy behind philanthropy also changed; It was more about material than spiritual and civic needs and virtues. It was less substantive and therefore made less sense to those who dealt with it. One way for the religious and civic contribution of women was blocked by the dismantling of civic associations.
In retrospect, it seems that the price for Friedan’s romance was paid by more than her target audience. Now the restlessness, selfishness, consumerism and the crisis of purpose described by Friedan have spread to American men.
Without such meaningful engagement, wealthy women organized endless activities for themselves, according to Friedan. One of their case studies says, “I’ve tried everything women should do – hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, offering PTA teas.” This portrait shows a person aimlessly Filling hours with distractions and engaging in high-intensity parenting. It’s a remarkable contrast to Olasky’s dynamic description of the higher service and citizenship of an earlier era.
Friedan attributed women’s unrest primarily to their roles as housewives and the monotony of housework, and hence their alternative was for women to pursue careers. She usually veiled such careers with romance and the American lure of high achievement: women could split atoms, penetrate space, create art that illuminates human destiny, and pioneers the frontiers of society. These aren’t women who have to take shifts in a hospital or restaurant to make ends meet (often a more realistic picture of work). Friedan’s feminists are the elite whose comfort, like Emma’s, is assured by their husbands. You can evade the rigors that often come with work if you need to. Flaubert used the tragic result of Emma’s romantic delusions (Emma herself commits suicide) to scorch the need for realism in the reader’s mind. Friedan attracts her readers with selected illustrations.
There are reasons to be suspicious of both the accuracy of Friedan’s analysis and its motivations. Her report on home life is extremely critical, but some surveys contradict her conclusions and she has misrepresented others. As an alternative, consider Jane Austen, who shows that family life is fascinating, dynamic, and full of everyday episodes of excellence and elegance. Austen is free from illusions, so her depictions, although fictional, appear authentic.
Friedan’s work has been read by countless women, but how much resonance did it get because of your feminist arguments against your account of the sterile emptiness of American life in the 1950s? Had something gone wrong in society and in the hearts of these women for some deeper reason? Did women have confidence in their solutions back then because their descriptions came home? At what price?
In retrospect, it seems that the price for Friedan’s romance was paid by more than her target audience. Now the restlessness, selfishness, consumerism, and crisis of intent that Friedan extensively described has spread to American men (due in part to some of the changes the sexual revolution sparked) and even across the West. In 2014, life expectancy began to decline in the US, mainly due to deaths from “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis”. The birth rate has fallen. It is more common today for men and women to take part in the tragedies portrayed by Flaubert. Many modern people like Emma are no longer able to find meaning or fulfillment in having children. Because why should people want children when we kill ourselves? Although Flaubert’s work was written before Friedan’s, its romanticism demonstrates the foresight of his realism about the future of the West.