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Feminine Mystique: My Mother’s Story

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

My mother and me, about 1953--ten years before the Feminine Mystique appeared. She was only 22.

Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique marks its 50th anniversary this year.  Because this book is often credited with “kicking off” the Second Wave, current writers assume the subject of the book is the generation of women who were in the ranks of the feminist movement of the 1970s and who, today, are maybe 55 to 65 years old.

This is a mistake.  The Feminine Mystique is not about my generation.  It is about our mothers.  One of the strengths of Friedan’s book (as compared with Simone de Beauvoir’s important, but less grounded, The Second Sex) is that much of it is empirical, data she collected from among the women with whom she attended Smith College.  That class had already graduated, married, and had a few children by the time her survey reached them–indeed, they were out of college at least ten years, having graduated in the early 1950s.

This is the cohort that was caught when the gender system slammed back into place after World War II, the women who gave birth to the Baby Boom. As Friedan makes very clear in her book, the feminist movement of the early century was still in living memory at that time (the Second Wave takes its name, after all, from the fact that it came second). But the postwar ideological push back into marriage and motherhood stunted the hopes of the generation of women born between the two “Waves.”

My mother, on the right, at the train station when she left for college, in 1949. The folks wearing shades are my grandparents.

My own mother, for instance, was born in 1931 and dropped out of college to marry my father in 1951. She had taught herself superb skills in sewing and clothing design while still in high school and had wanted a career in theatrical costumes.  My grandparents quashed those hopes, telling her they weren’t spending the money to send her to college so she could have a career, but to make it possible for her to find a good husband.  So she obediently married a medical student and began having children, as so many of her cohort did, very early.

The postwar period also brought innovations that greatly affected daily life for women:  single-family housing, household appliances, even vastly more effective cleaners and detergents.  By the mid-1950s, the life of a housewife was characterized by less physically taxing labor than had been typical before the war.  Since appliances meant tasks once done collectively were now solitary work, and since the little Levittown-type houses sheltered only nuclear families, women were together much less during the day than they had once been.

My parents, cutting their wedding cake, 1951.

The world of housewives thus suddenly telescoped into a small, tight little space with little to offer challenge or inspiration.  In this regard, that generation’s was a unique historical experience.  And it is this experience that Freidan called “the problem that had no name.” The ideology that brought it about was “the feminine mystique,” a collection of demeaning notions about the nature of women: their passivity, their gullibility, their craze to reproduce. The ideology, unlike the circumstances, was not unique, but was only the latest variant of a riff on womanhood we have heard for thousands of years. Because of this underlying theme, the book has remained relevant, has spoken to women, often even across time, race, and national boundaries. Because of the unique historical circumstances, the book hit the ground like a meteor in that moment.

When my mother reminisces about those years, the topic she keeps coming back to is the loneliness.  She missed having conversations with other adults.  She seldom was able to go anywhere because my dad took the car to work and she had the four of us around her ankles.  What I remember from my childhood is the sense that her anger and frustration were barely contained.

My younger sister and me in one of our many matching outfits.

My mother plowed her talent for sewing into making our clothes, as well as her own. We were, without question, the best-dressed kids on the block. The substantial creativity trapped inside my mother was diverted into a never-ending stream of Easter dresses and matching outfits for me and my sister. And she herself was as well-dressed as Jackie Kennedy on a budget–and just as pretty.

There were certainly benefits for us.  As adolescents, we would cut photographs of the newest fashions out of Seventeen and she would recreate them brilliantly.  Whenever we had a really special dress to be made–a prom dress, for instance–she would take us with her to this huge fabric store in Houston.  We would sit with the pattern books, choosing a sleeve from one, a skirt from the other. We would select fabric and trim and buttons.  She would then create the dress to order, straight from our own imaginations. Like some kind of postwar fairy godmother.  Wonderful.

This was her Jackie Kennedy period--about the time Friedan's book appeared. I was eleven.

Mother also became the most perfect hostess I have ever known.  Gorgeous tables with fabulous dinners–we would volunteer to be allowed to clean the silver or set the table for one of her soirées. Even now, Martha Stewart has nothing on my mother.

One of the passions we inherited was her love of home design.  Choosing a fabric for some drapes or the tiles for a kitchen became a huge treat.  Even as kids, we loved to be included in such delicious and momentous decisions. Today, my sisters share news of our latest home decoration initiatives the same way we share graduation pictures.

This flair of hers gave us a beautiful life. Nevertheless, my father always spoke to her as if she were not smart.  It was clear to us that she was dependent on him and that he thought of her (and, by extension, all women) as his inferior.  Mother is, even now, very self-effacing and inclined to defer to the men in any room.

The women of her circle back then always seemed very superficial to me, always caught up in gossip and envy, way too worried about trivia.  Many of them were later abandoned for younger women.  Some lived out bitter and impoverished lives because “the system” no longer recognized their contribution as home-makers. Marriage hardly offered the security it promised, as we learned too well by watching these tragedies.

Happily, my own mother escaped that fate.  She and my Dad did divorce and it was traumatic.  But she remarried–and soon created a beautiful world for that man, too. Then, after fifteen years, the second marriage ended.  He left her for a younger woman (his secretary, in a move so clichéd it would have been embarrassing had all our hearts not been broken).

After that, though, Mother was finally free to pursue her own dreams. She was, from about the age of 55, full of enthusiasm about a range of activities from hiking and skiing to her old loves of cooking and sewing.  She had finished college near the end of her second marriage (something we all thought was the last straw for our stepfather).

In her new life, Mother read and read and read.  I learned, far too late, that my mother was smart, too.  She had an intelligence that was perhaps not as quantitative and logical as my father’s, but was reflective and deep. She attended to her spirituality, while reading all the latest and most respected fiction and nonfiction, showing a strong appreciation for knowing the history of scripture, as well as alternative theologies.  She decorated a house of her own and threw her own parties.  She was as open-minded as any 20 year old, rolling determinedly with the discovery that a grandchild was gay or that somebody was still smoking pot.  She became both an Episcopalian and a Democrat, after years of being Southern Baptist and voting Republican.  But she can talk to you about the sacred feminine with as much confidence as any Wiccan. It has been a blossoming that would take your breath away.

In the meantime, I struggled along my own path, earning degrees, getting jobs, and winning promotions.  I moved all over the place and eventually ended up raising two daughters more or less on my own.  It was not an easy life, though it was filled with a lot of recognition and achievement.  But it was never lonely; indeed, solitude was something I considered the ultimate luxury (and still do).

All along the way, I thought of my mother’s generation as having been the victims of a terrible tragedy.  And I think there were years in there where Mother felt a bit cheated of the independence and free-wheeling lifestyle she thought she saw in her daughters.  My mother has had–and still does have–a rich  second half of life, one that I prayed made up for the close quarters, long silences, and lost dreams of the first half.

But in sitting down to write retrospectively about the impact of the Feminine Mystique, I find that the outcomes are less clear than the story I have been telling myself (and that the movement has been telling us) all this time.  My mother and I are both more aware, having been beneficiaries of the largest feminist movement in history.  And I think we are both glad of it.  And neither of us would think for a minute of turning the clock back on gender roles.  Both of us want careers, achievement, and financial independence for her grandchildren, male and female.

But has my life been more satisfying than hers because I turned toward outside achievement?  Actually, I don’t think so.  Work life is often quite unsatisfying, actually, just as home life offers its peculiar frustrations and moments of boredom.  Was my life more meaningful?  Right now, I feel very blessed to be doing work I actually do think is important.  But some of the work I have had in the past now seems silly and pointless.  I don’t understand why I once cared about it so much–enough to go without sleep or exercise or a personal life.  Was it worth the sacrifice? I thought my mother’s generation were the ones who sacrificed themselves.  Am I wrong about that?

I still would not go back to that era (I can’t even watch Mad Men because it is too realistic a depiction of the sick stereotypes I saw my parents living), but I am increasingly seeing the emphasis on work as confining and short-sighted–and very “Second Wave.”

And here my sister and I have arrived, with our long hair and shifts imported from India, in 1970, at the doorstep of the Second Wave.

When I was researching Fresh Lipstick, I went back and read all the national coverage of the “women’s liberation movement” and I also re-read the main books, like Dialectic of Sex, Sisterhood is Powerful, and Sexual Politics.  These books are very, very different from The Feminine Mystique.  They speak from and to a different experience.  They are intellectual books, focused on theory.  In fact, I think one of the reasons I still like Friedan’s book best is that it was so unassuming, so eye-to-eye with happenings on the ground (even if those events were in a white middle class milieu).

One thing that comes through the news stories and the books, however, is how strongly motivated my generation was by our own indignation at what we saw happening to our mothers.  The rage of the child on behalf of the mother erupts on page after page. We owe a lot to Betty Friedan for helping to steer the next generation away from the trap of the Feminine Mystique.  Nevertheless, “the problem that had no name” was more the previous cohort’s story than it was ours.

Me and my mother today--50 years after The Feminine Mystique.

Today I live a life that neither Mother nor my father could have imagined for me in the early 1950s.  Not only am I a professor at Oxford (a career that would have been entirely closed to a female in my mother’s day), but I actually teach a course in women’s economics.  Yet it has been a long, sometimes tortuous path, no less uncomfortable than my mother’s engagement with “the problem that had no name.”  We are of different eras, took different paths, and had different journeys.  Our stories are not the same. But we have both become, in the end, who we really are.

To read the next installment of this retrospective, “Dolls and Dress-Up,” click here


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