Sunday, January 9, 2011

Not just a housewife

I've been reading "The Feminine Mystique"by Betty Friedan. I haven't finished yet, but it has really made me think, and that's a good thing. There is some criticism of the book, but some of it resonates with me.

The basic gist is that after WWII, women were encouraged to go back into the home, leaving jobs for the men. Many forces aligned to convince women that their sole role in life was to be wives and mothers, that destiny was determined by gender. By 1963 when the book was published, many women suffered from neuroses and felt trapped by their role. The focus is middle class white women.

Some things that stick in my mind from the first 11 chapters, then.

A thesis for the book might be that limiting anyone's potential as a human being can be disastrous. Yes, it is primarily about forcing women (through psychological means, conditioning, limiting options, etc) to be housewives and the consequences of that. But whether you look at the narrow view of making women less than full participants in society or any other way of limiting someone (through poverty, slavery, caste, whatever), the message is the same. Think of all the achievements we will never know because someone was told they couldn't do something.

An entire chapter is devoted to the idea that housework expands to fill the time available. The housewives interviewed ended up bored out of their skulls, as cleaning a house doesn't require much brain power. I know I get bored sometimes. I hate cleaning. But I also know that staying home until the boys are in school is a temporary thing. I also make time to do things for myself. I do some part-time work; I write; I am on the Starrynight Productions staff.... The point is, I am a lot more than just a housewife.

One chapter discusses a phenomenon during WWII where some men were found to not qualify to serve in the armed forces because they had been pampered so much by their mothers they were incapable of functioning as adults. The mothers in these cases apparently had so little self-identity that they lived through their children. There were also some studies showing that children whose mothers worked or had some outside life were generally better adjusted.

I have long maintained that moms need to have an identity other than mom. How can we teach our children to be individuals, to be self-sufficient, to follow their passions, if we don't do the same? Children learn what they see. It doesn't matter if you work outside the home or stay home full-time; have a life of your own and you will be a better mom. If you live through your children, what happens when they grow up? Eventually we all have to face life. The sooner we do, the healthier we are.

There is a very interesting chapter on advertising geared toward the housewife and how advertisers began to target girls younger and younger so that by the time they married (often very young) they were already brand loyal. Think about the advertising now, targeting preschoolers. If the question was raised 50 years ago as to whether advertising to teenagers was too young and manipulative, what of advertising now?

It's interesting that the Kinsey reports are cited several times, especially living here in Bloomington. Looking back on the way things were and seeing how much or how little things have changed is really fascinating. Because some things have changed (women are encouraged to work, to get an education, to become full citizens) and how much they haven't (some employers still discriminate against women, some things are still seen as women's work). I think one of the best things now is that we all can make our choices. We can choose careers, or stay home, or do a little of both. And our husbands can make the same choices.

Really, I recommend anyone to read this book. I'm using it for a bit of research for a short play I'm writing, but I'm learning a lot. I keep finding things to talk to Chris about, ideas that need fleshing out. Understanding something that has been a huge influence, that is still referenced, is important.

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