Betty Friedan died over the weekend, at 85. I read her most famous book, The Feminine Mystique as an undergraduate in a feminist theory course. Her book, a founding text of second-wave feminism, analyzes and decries “the problem that had no name,” the anomie and discontent of educated, middle-class women who had no practical alternative to a stultifying, suburban existence of tending to home, husband, and children – women who got everything they thought they wanted and were then left asking themselves, “Is that all?”
I remember feeling a sense of gratitude when I read the book: in significant part because of books like hers, the world that she described wasn’t the world I expected to inhabit. But accompanying that sense of gratitude was an equally strong feeling of disconnection: the recent past that she described was a foreign country, not a place that struck me as familiar. These problems, I thought, weren’t my problems.
I’m now struck – and slightly embarrassed – by how disconnected I felt from what she described. I grew up in a milieu in which, quite honestly, it truly never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have a professional life. Back when I was a junior in college reading her book, I didn’t know what I’d be – journalist? Lawyer? Anthropologist? – but I certainly knew that I’d never identify with the label ‘housewife’!. I vaguely expected to have a family someday too, and perhaps I even wondered every now and then about how I’d juggle the various roles, though I suspect that I didn’t give those matters too much detailed thought back in those days. Why couldn’t I have it all?
No doubt the world is a very different place now than when Betty Friedan published her book in 1963. And yet: I look around at my friends, at my law school classmates, at the people all around me, and I am struck by what an enormous number of talented, highly educated women are choosing to forego their professional lives in order to stay at home with their families. (We don’t talk about housewives any more, of course; the terminology du jour is the ‘stay-at-home-mom’.)
The present is, of course, very different from the post-world-war-two landscape about which Friedan is writing: for one thing, for most of today's well-educated women, staying at home is genuinely a choice as opposed to the only socially and institutionally-sanctioned alternative. (And it goes without saying that class plays a central role here: it’s a choice available only to the immensely privileged few who can possibly afford it.)
The return-by-choice to an updated version of the domestic fantasy of the 50s has been much commented upon – think, for example, of Lisa Belkin's much-analyzed (in my circles, anyway) 2003 NYT magazine piece on female Princeton grads and the 'opt-out' revolution, or the Times' more recent survey of female Yale undergraduates, many of whom expect to leave the workplace when they became mothers. Part of it, I think, stems from the simple reality that for many women, the working world turned out to be less than it seemed. If, as Friedan stirringly described, home and hearth can be sources of discontent that lead to silent yearning, so, it turns out, can 65 hour-a-week jobs, constant corporate jockeying, workplace cultures that value infinite ‘face-time’ in the office, and business reorganizations so frequent that no one ever gets a handle on their job.
No doubt there are a lot of stay-at-home mothers who are less happy than they’d like to admit. And yes, from my perspective, it does seem like the new stay-at-home ideology invites a certain degree of unjustified martyrdom and self-sacrifice. I admit it: some stay-at-home mothers seem so invested in their children’s every move that it makes me squirm. But I have no doubt there are also a lot of unhappy corporate lawyers too. And those who try to juggle both professional and personal lives can feel dissatisfied and inadequate in both their realms.
Still, as one who makes the choice every day to juggle both roles, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I’m struck that when I think about Friedan now, 20 years after I read her landmark book, the world that she describes resonates more with me today than it did when I first laid eyes on it.