I sat slouched in my 1960s college history class, hungover, with my hoodie concealing my messy bun. I had barely made it to class that morning, and exhaled beer breath on my much-more-studious peers. Then my scrawny, pony-tailed professor began lecturing on Betty Friedan before we read her book, “The Feminine Mystique,” and I was awakened. My hangover vanished. At the naïve, defiant age of 21, I somehow knew that I better wake the fuck up. I was going to need this stuff someday, maybe after having a baby of my own.
Once you become a mother, everything changes. The world around you. The world within you. Who you are and who you want to be change daily, even hourly. That gorgeous little human you nurture has made you different, yet there are times that you’re haunted by the old you. Searching for your identity through motherhood can be a labyrinth – one that is not easy to navigate.
Betty Friedan explored this concept of identity and motherhood in her society-changing book, “The Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963. From her book sprang another surge of feminism and, this time, motherhood stood at the nucleus. Friedan dug, interviewed, researched, and placed our “mystique” under a microscope. She discovered what was in the hearts and spirits of so many mothers of the fifties and sixties: unhappiness. She put it best, “The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.” Today, 55 years later, her words still inspire. Her book should be read and reread. Here’s why.
As Friedan said, “Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – 'Is this all?”
Obviously the number of stay-at-home mothers is not what it was in the sixties, but it’s on the rise, according to recent research. Today, almost one-third of American women are stay-at-home moms. For many of us (working moms too), after you trudge through the fog of a newborn, you come out a different person, yet you’re not always satisfied with the new you. The need to reinvent yourself aches, but sometimes the guilt pulses harder. So you ignore the aches until it gets worse. Friedan, however, begs us to find more purpose outside of our kids and partner.
“In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination – tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it,” Friedan said.
Over 55 years later, this quote by Friedan could not be more true. Today we’re finally starting to win this fight against all kinds of discrimination – and continue to fight we will. Maybe, just maybe, by the time our daughters enter the workforce, this “uncomfortable discrimination” will finally be swallowed up.
Friedan’s discussion on femininity is still true today. "America depends rather heavily on women's passive dependence, their femininity. Femininity, if one still wants to call it that, makes American women a target and a victim of the sexual sell.”
According to dictionary.com, femininity is 1) The quality of being feminine; womanliness, and 2) women collectively. As a feminist, I could accept this definition since it doesn’t define exactly what that looks like for women. Femininity could vary from woman to woman.
Then I read the sentence example: “She celebrates her femininity by wearing makeup and heels.” Even according to the dictionary, today in 2017, women’s femininity is geared toward a “sexual sell.” One of my college friends rarely paints her face and almost always wears running shoes. Does this mean she lacks femininity? I think Friedan would think the opposite. It means she embraces it – she’s comfortable with who she is and who she wants to be. It means she doesn’t give a shit what “society” thinks of her, she’s radiant in her own individuality.
Friedan urged women to find more. “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.”
Whether you work or stay home with the kids and whether you’re a mom or a dad, you need an outlet. You need a trail that leads towards the creation of you. The end of this trail is different for everyone. Maybe you need to write that novel, run a marathon, or land that big account. Whatever it is, Friedan urges that, even when we have kids, they shouldn’t engulf our identity.
I skipped a lot of classes in college and I’m grateful to my 21-year-old, beer-guzzling self that I chose to suck it up that morning. Betty Friedan helped me through the most difficult moments of motherhood. Not the sleepless nights, colic, or acid reflux, but the salvaging and reinventing of my identity after becoming a mother. I may always be stuck in the labyrinth of motherhood, but I think Friedan would be pleased that I’m also always searching.