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Escaping the Housewife Trap

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The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique 50 years ago, when middle America was flowering for some parts of the population. In its post-war prosperity, a highly visible class of “average American families” lived in independent bungalows, each with a Chevrolet in the driveway. A single income sufficed for this charmed class. And the women, to hear Friedan tell it, slowly realised the hollowness at the core of their lives.

The “mystique” she describes is what Indian women recognize as “women are worshipped as goddess in our country”, the bone thrown to us each time we protest entrenched sexism. To become that worthy object of mystique or deification, a woman has to stay within the threshold.

The issue was not just one of privilege. Though Friedan addresses only one class of women, the ideology that true women were taken care of by a man and didn’t need full salaries, credit cards, or housing loans crippled those many women who were in fact financially supporting their families.

Friedan focused on many aspects of women’s lives, but the most disturbing trend she observed was the regression of American women in the 1950s and 60s. They married at a younger age, and they had more children than their mothers had. The men also burrowed into their homes, scarred by the horrors of war, but the effect on women lasted much longer. They remained infantilised for years, unable to understand the outside world and yet dissatisfied in the cocoons they had made for themselves.

Friedan was horrified that women with choices had slid back so quickly from the gains of the early 20th century—a college education and living examples of professional women to learn from. Young women, she felt, had suddenly become terrified of growing up, negotiating the world and earning a living; they looked to sex and marriage as an easy way out. And colleges, faced with the evidence that a liberal education made women dissatisfied with their incarceration, responded by teaching women instead how to cook and sew and manage the home.

Though she set the feminist movement in the context of American history, Friedan was not simply going over old ground. She systematically took the pants off Sigmund Freud and the psychologists who applied his benighted judgements by rote decade after decade. Independent women, Friedan declared, were not unsexed by their masculine transactions with the larger world. She cited statistics and studies to show that independent women in fact had better and more mature sexual relationships than their childlike sisters. Friedan laid special emphasis on that achievement. The book was published in 1963, the year sex was invented, and a “proper” orgasm was a point of honour.

Friedan’s book ended with something more than exhortation. By the time she finished writing her manuscript, she was able to report that many women were climbing out of the housewife trap and overcoming obstacles to pursue their own ambitions. In her epilogue she describes the beginning of the National Organization for Women and the resurgence of the women’s movement. American women were moving forward again.

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