In the 1970s, social upsurge pulled millions of working-class women, including me, into the second wave of feminism. Sparked by our increasing presence in the workforce and inspired by the civil rights and anti-war movements, women’s liberation was born.
Reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan reinforced our awakening. Friedan explored “the problem that has no name” — the unhappiness of housewives in constricted roles. She exposed that women were taught, by educational institutions, psychology and media, that being a self-sacrificing wife and mother, cut off from independence and opportunity, was natural, inherent — unquestionable. This socially imposed mystique of subservient womanhood was absorbed by women of all classes and backgrounds.
The Feminine Mystique was flawed by its focus on affluent, heterosexual, white housewives. But its revelation of conscious anti-female cultural forces motivated women of all classes, colors and sexualities to throw off the conditioning of their oppressors.
Dominatrix, victim, consumer. After four decades of consciousness-raising and organizing, true female equality, like race equality, is still an ever-receding horizon. Even as women blazed trails for abortion rights, union participation, childcare, career opportunities and equal pay, a counter-offensive was launched by big business and the right wing — those who benefit from women’s low wages and free domestic labor.
Right-to-lifers still want women barefoot and pregnant, virginal and submissive. Corporate America wants us to be spellbound consumers, so busy trying to become a fantasy — young, egotistical, glamorous, with a license to kill — that we have no time to organize. These contradictory concepts have a common goal: to project an impossible image while undermining women’s strengths and collective leadership abilities.
The pressure of this toxic mystique starts early. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011), Peggy Orenstein writes of a new and growing “princess culture” that uses predatory marketing to sell products and myths that sexualize girlhood. On the opposite spectrum, films like Kick-Ass and Hanna promote sweet-faced pubescent girls beating and killing the bad guys. Blood-thirst is not just for tough guys anymore. Illusions of being a killing machine masquerade as feminist strength and freedom.
For adult women, the idealized image is fiercer and more debilitating than ever. Beauty is a hugely profitable industry that promotes an obsession with youth and super-toned bodies. The TV series Nip/Tuck and The Cougar, make-over shows, mother and daughter facelifts, Botox, lip plumpers, wrinkle-erasers, tooth whiteners, and weight-loss remedies besiege us day and night, preying on feelings of inadequacy.
Workforce equality in TV and films generally means being a shrew or one of the jocks, with an emphasis on detectives and FBI agents. One role model is Angelina Jolie, a motorcycle-riding spy/assassin. You can be either tough as nails or a tortured and murdered victim.
For variety, there’s the series about a drug-addicted nurse. Or you can choose a show about ordinary women: Desperate Housewives or Real Housewives who dress in satins and jewels to party and cat-fight. (Reality check: My mother was a real housewife of the Bronx. She wore a housedress, shopped for bargains, sewed clothes for her daughters, and was an unhappy prisoner of the feminine mystique.)
But what of not-fit-for-prime-time realities? The unrelenting ultra-right attack on legal abortions. The onslaught of sexual violence and rape. Unscrupulous mortgage practices that target Black women. Displacement from the workforce as women are passed over in rehiring. Cruel deportations that divide families. Attacks on public workers that undermine unionized female jobs in teaching, nursing and social work. Loss of services that leave women shouldering increased unpaid responsibilities for children and ill or elderly relatives. The heartbreaking price of lost pensions seen in the weary, over-60 faces of chain-store employees.
Skewed critique. A Strange Stirring, a curiously feminist-lite book by Stephanie Coontz about Friedan’s best seller, has recently been released. Coontz says Friedan’s work was not that big a deal, although she recounts how women she interviewed insisted it had saved their sanity and their lives. Coontz condemns Friedan for omitting Black experience, but is herself white-woman-centric. She mainly faults Friedan because white women could have learned so much from Black women’s experience. She ignores how women of color were scorned for deviating from a white, middle-class stereotype of femininity that bore no relation to their lives.
A noted historian of the family, Coontz has never been much of a feminist. In the 1970s, she acted as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) hatchet-woman to discredit the party’s pioneering theorist Evelyn Reed. Reed had applied new anthropological research to Frederick Engels’ analysis of the origin of women’s oppression in the rise of private property. Coontz’ sneers bolstered the SWP’s rejection of feminism as a profound social perspective.
Forward to a new vision. The feminine mystique, like race privilege and homophobia, is an attempt to cement rigid social positions that bolster the oppressive capitalist system. It’s time to expose the poisonous lies fed to women and children. Women must critique the cultural and commercial forces that create divisions and misery in our lives just as we fight discrimination, poverty and militarism. Liberatory, healthy, fully human roles, styles and psychology are everybody’s right!
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