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Does This 1963 Feminist Manifesto On Housewives Still Matter 50 Years Later?

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Nowadays, whenever the topic of Betty Friedan’s seminal second-wave classic The Feminine Mystique is broached on feminist blogs or in women’s studies courses, there inevitably follows a flurry of asterisks and addenda as everyone makes pointed mention of the book’s numerous pitfalls. Friedan fixates on the condition of the unhappy suburban housewife to the exclusion of all other narratives, we exclaim. She fails to account for the millions of working-class women who never got the chance to grow listless in Levittown because they had bills to pay. She is seemingly unconcerned with the plight of non-white women, or of women without husbands and college degrees. The general consensus seems to be that Friedan, while obviously an important figure, crafted feminism in her own image to the exclusion of all others. As the ladies of Is This Feminist? would say: PROBLEMATIC.

So when I saw that the New York Times had published an excerpt of Gail Collins’ introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, I may have rolled my eyes a little bit. After all, I have become so conditioned to think of The Feminine Mystique as an exercise in caveats that it’s hard for me to muster up much enthusiasm. I skimmed the first page of the article and dismissed it as a commemorative fluff piece, intended only to pay lip service to a book that was once important but is now largely irrelevant to contemporary feminism and, by extension, to me.

Incidentally, two days after Collins’ excerpt appeared in the Times, my grandpa died. As my family came together to grieve, reminisce, and make funeral arrangements, we finally found occasion to look through the boxes upon boxes of old family photos that had been gathering dust in the attic ever since my late grandmother stashed them there in the 1980s. As I sifted through boxes of my grandparents’ memories, I happened upon an elaborate scrapbook my grandma had made in her 20s. It was overflowing with black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings, sorority paraphernalia, scribbled poems full of inside jokes from long-ago girlfriends, and numerous academic accolades from the University of Colorado, all impeccably preserved.

Despite its years in the attic, my grandma’s scrapbook still radiates her infectious enthusiasm and the trademark whirling dervish-style vivacity that made her so enormously popular with everyone she knew. As a soon-to-be-graduated college senior, I was struck by admiration (and envy, even) as I paged through ephemera from my grandma’s college days, during which she was elected president of her sorority, leader of the graduation processional, and “Most Outstanding Senior Woman” in her graduating class.

About halfway through the scrapbook, my grandma gets married to my grandpa, as evidenced by the beautiful wedding photos and a nuptial announcement clipped from the pages of the local paper. Thereafter, any newspaper captions that mention my grandma refer to her as 'Mrs. Robert Gielow.' I found the caption in this 1960 promotional ad for ‘S&H Green Stamps’ (whatever those are) particularly striking:

Mrs. Robert Gielow is shown in her attractive Early American home, which contains many gifts obtained with S&H Green Stamps. Mrs. Gielow is active in both PTA and the Erie Neighborhood House. Mr. Gielow is an insurance executive.

So if, thousands of years from now, anthropologists should attempt to gather data about my grandma’s post-college years, they will have no problems ascertaining the style of her home decor or my grandpa’s profession, but they will be hard-pressed to discover her name. (It was Nancy, for the record). I suddenly recollected my dad telling me about his early childhood memory of my grandma withdrawing from her seemingly idyllic suburban wife dream life and disappearing into her bedroom for a year – struck down by “the problem that has no name.” 

In that moment, Collins’ New York Times feature didn’t seem quite as extraneous to my third-wave millennial perspective as I had initially assumed. To see The Feminine Mystique manifest itself in my grandmother’s scrapbooked transition from a bright, ambitious college student to Mrs. Robert Gielow truly impressed upon me just how revolutionary Freidan’s work was for the cadre of women with whom her liberationist message resonated. As Collins says: 

“The Feminine Mystique” is a very specific cry of rage about the way intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life and regarded as little more than a set of reproductive organs in heels. It is supremely, specifically personal, and that’s what gives it such gut-punching power.

So while it is important that we continue to recognize the undercurrent of privilege that pervades “The Feminine Mystique,” it is just as important that we celebrate it for what it was a powerful rallying cry that helped to catalyze a broader normative shift that all third-wave feminists, no matter how critical, can surely appreciate.

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