On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, I have asked a number of friends to join me at The Birds’ Nest to reflect on the legacy of Friedan’s work. In order to get the conversation started, I thought I would offer an account of my introduction to Second Wave Feminism and Betty Friedan and talk about how some weird gatherings of interests have lately prompted me to return to feminist/gender/queer theory.
|Original image is from Liza Donnelly's Forbes article |
celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique .
My initial reading of The Feminine Mystique was through a series of excerpts in Anne Valk’s History 500A during my first year of graduate study at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. The course was a graduate seminar focusing on post-war American social and political history, and the Friedan excerpts were coupled with Daniel Horowitz’s Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. I can vaguely recall that our conversation centered around the terminus a quo of Friedan’s enunciation of this “problem that has no name” and its relation to other movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s that were arguing for equality, changes in the status quo, and revisions to “the American Dream.” What I failed to see at the time – and why I might benefit from a reread of Horowitz if I had not discarded my copy long ago – is the way in which these two texts in Professor Valk’s seminar were setting the ground work for seeing the connections among the various Leftist political movements of the 1960’s (NOW, SNCC, SDS) as well as the possible linkages between the activism of the 60s and that of the 70s on both the right and the left.
It has been interesting to follow the articles celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of The Feminine Mystique. Some have seized the moment to recall how different the world was fifty years ago (NYTimes), others are quick to point out how much work remains (Huffington Post Blog), and still others have suggested that Friedan’s ideas have been betrayed (National Review). My thoughts on Friedan are necessarily different. Through some historical imagination, I can begin to glimpse the world that Friedan describes in The Feminine Mystique, but living in a world that is unquestionably (and I think monumentally) shaped by Friedan’s work, it is difficult to grasp the impact that Friedan’s work has had. I would be quite surprised to learn, for example, that either my mother or my grandmother had any familiarity with Betty Friedan, her book, or even her work with the National Organization for Women, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that both of them could describe quite readily the mystique that Friedan charts. And at some level, I think that is my frustration with The Feminine Mystique that can only be overcome by seeing it in the context of a broader movement: the book seems to speak to only one experience of being a women and that experience is upper middle class, fairly well educated, and white. But as it was for me in Professor Valk’s class, the book – The Feminine Mystique – was only the beginning.
I still do not have a sense of where one might locate the terminus ad quem of Friedan’s book - or Second Wave Feminism for that matter – but I would like to point out some possible cites of connection. Over the past few weeks, I have been reading an odd assortment of texts (odd considering that my reading is typically bifurcated between Dora the Explorer or Dr. Seuss books and the writings of white men who died in the fifteenth century). My English 1110 class permitted me the opportunity to return to Donna Haraway’s cyborg essay, and because of other pursuits I have also had the pleasure of reading J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism and part of Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenologies and rereading large parts of Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter. Part of my interest lately has been fleshing-out some of Haraway’s provocations, but I have also been spurred to reconsider my own position vis-à-vis women’s rights, the LGBTQIA movement, and certain political questions that I have long held rather unquestionably. More to the point, my reading of Gaga Feminism coincided with President Obama’s second inaugural address, and that coincidence has left me reeling to be quite honest.
You might not begrudge me that I never quite made the connections between Betty Friedan and the Black Panther Movement or the Combahee River Collective. But what about those between Friedan and Stonewall? Friedan and Judith Butler? Friedan and Donna Haraway? Friedan and J. Jack Halberstam? Friedan and current discourses about “the successful (American) woman” (see this “argument” for Ke$ha as today’s burgeoning feminist)? Friedan and President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address? I am searching not for a terminus for Friedan’s work – work which I think continually prompts us to be ever-vigilant even if we can imagine that we are better off, more equal, more open, or more possibilistic – I am searching for sights of connectivity. I want to continue locating the places where this “problem that has no name” is reconfigured and prompts different (if difficult) responses. And I think that is the way to end my own recollection of encountering Friedan’s work – to recall that what might be most challenging about re-reading Friedan or reading Friedan for the first time today is recognizing that when it was released fifty years ago, The Feminine Mystique was difficult, divisive, provocative, monumentally significant.