when pigs fly … expect the unbelievable

Archive for May 15th, 2009

Yesterday, we discovered that there was no “name” for sexual harassment until the 1970s, although sexual harassment is a ubiquitous feature in American culture.  Long before American women began looking for a name for the problems that we now understand as characteristics of sexual harassment, Betty Friedan realized that many American women were struggling with “the problem that has no name”. 

How did Friedan reach this conclusion?  A 1942 graduate of Smith College (phi beta kappa, by the way), she read over classmates’ responses to questionnaires mailed in anticipation of the class’ 15th reunion in 1957 and identified a dissatisfaction that her peers from Smith shared but could not articulate…the problem that has no name.  Friedan followed up, and in 1963 her seminal work was published:  The Feminine Mystique.  Many scholars use the publication of The Feminine Mystique as the marker for the inception of the second wave of feminism in America.

The post-World War II era was marked by a resurgence in American domesticity.  You may remember (or may have seen re-runs of) Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best.  In many ways, these shows were a valid reflection of suburban post-WWII life in the 50s.  Friedan’s colleagues who had graduated from Smith College with excellent educations, some of which went in search of post-graduate education as did Friedan herself at Berkeley, 15 years after college graduation were mostly married, mostly stay-at-home moms, mostly white, mostly WASPs (white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant, unlike Friedan herself, who was jewish), mostly middle class and — mostly bored. Or so Friedan saw it.

The Feminine Mystique is a searing indictment of the situation in which many women in America found themselves  — a situation in which they found marriage and child care, domestic challenges and obligations highly over-rated, where they felt that their brains were turning to mush, where they wondered “is this all there is?”  Those American women who identified with the book applauded and set about considering action — action which ultimately became the second wave. 

Other American women, also akin to Friedan’s classmates in social and economic means, hated the book! They argued that their work as wives and mothers provided them with personal freedom and self-worth.  Which perhaps is the beginning of the schism of feminism….is it ok to be a wife and mother?

Sure it is!  The problem that has no name is truly any artifice which forms the barrier to keep women from doing precisely what they want to do with the skills and aptitudes they have.

If you haven’t read The Feminine Mystique, I highly recommend it.  It has made a difference in the lives of everyone reading this sentence — whether you know it or not.


May 2009
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