Feminine Mystique.

Anyone seeing the title of Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic -The Feminine Mystique(1) for the first time – could be forgiven for thinking that she is actuallypromoting some kind of strategy of perfumed seduction… but far from it.

Friedan presents a convincing case of the ways in which the FM working through the big business, the media and advertising persuaded women back into the kitchen, after their vigorous participation in the workforce during World War II. Jobs had to be found again for the homecoming boys. And women had to be made to enjoy staying home.

Is the Feminine Mystique creeping back in innovative and insidious forms?
As Friedan declares in a typically confident passage -which is backed up by appropriate psychological and social science sources….”The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is their own femininity……the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature which can find fulfilment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.”

Friedan dated the emergence of FM to the period immediately after the Second World War which had itself followed on the heels of a disastrous Depression. Men came back from the war, longing for home and family, and also wanting the jobs that women had taken over in their absence. The Baby- Boom of the post-war years reflected and reinforced in America the ideology that a woman’s place is in the home where she would also derive the maximum emotional satisfaction.

Alfred Kinsey was popularly misquoted in support of FM as having said that educated working women had fewer orgasms (2); and other studies suggested that the children of women with jobs outside the home were more likely to be delinquent.

For Friedan it seemed obvious on the other hand that educated but under-employed and undervalued women would create pathologically infantile and dependent children, particularly sons! And that educated and frustrated women who were prisoners of the FM had to live vicariously through their children, pushing their daughters into promiscuity and their sons into homosexuality.
The crux of Friedan’s analysis is to be found in her chapter on “The Sexual Sell” -another misleading title by the way…or was this Friedan’s way of attracting reader’s attention?

The Sexual Sell describes how the American economic machine, and the advertising and media industry which were its outgrowth, needed to glorify and mystify consumption and all the trappings of domesticity in order to subvert women’s lives to the ends of business.

She describes how the advertising industry and “big business” colluded in introducing a fake complexity into housework, and home -making. Ever more and different machines were required for doing essentially simple tasks; cake mixes and canned goods that required the creative additions of the dedicated “home-maker” had to be purchased and “mastered”.

There were the so-called convenience foods to take away the drudgery and at the same time allow more time for each house-wife’s special flair. The professionalization of “housework” made it more difficult to choose amongst the ever more specialized products and gadgets for everyday tasks, which resulted in increased sense of fulfilment for those who succeeded in this game, and sense of failure for those who did not, or who could not afford to play.

Is this starting to ring any bells? We are experiencing an ever- mounting surge of interest in house decoration and refurbishment, in kitchen gadgetry and insanely complex recipes. All of this has of course a strong class – let’s call it “aspirational” – element; not everyone can recite or afford the 15 different shades of Farrow & Ball “white” paint (3), nor achieve the calorie- glutted booziness of the Domestic Goddess & her staged “guests”.(4)
But is it a good way of keeping highly educated Yummy Mummies busy, and content with their lot and save them from jumping onto the labour market when jobs are scarce and child care unaffordable? It may not be an intentional Big Brother strategy but it is a functional one.

Written almost thirty years later Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990) (5) takes up where Betty Friedan left off. The essence of Wolf’s argument is that despite all the barriers,as women become ever more present in what were formerly men’s exclusive domains, the Beauty Myth….the insistence that women’s competence and professionalism is not enough to entitle them to such positions, but that they must also be young, beautiful, and sexy as well….. has become stronger and stronger.

“The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us…as women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground…..the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women whom second wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively uncontrollable”.

Wolf shows how demands for women to achieve not only professional competence but high standards of beauty – what she names the Professional Beauty Qualification (PBQ) pervaded many different types of occupation where in principle appearance should be irrelevant. She also demonstrates that this is a game that can never be won, in the sense that if women meet the beauty standard they will be accused of having obtained their jobs on the basis of their looks.

She analyses the ways in which women’s magazines propagate the PBQ but are themselves victims of it; “like its readers the magazine must pay for its often serious pro-woman content with beauty backlash trappings; it must do so to reassure its advertisers who are threatened by the possible effects on women’s minds of too much excellence in women’s journalism”.

Wolf summarizes her views on the Beauty Myth as its being not about appearance or dieting or surgery or cosmetics, but more about social control.
Gendercentric is seeing a number of not necessarily helpful new trends which reminded us to heed both Friedan’s & Wolf’s wise words.
We’re all familiar with the ongoing and usually justified complaints of women about PBQ and ageism in the workplace & we won’t rehearse these again here.(6)

But the level of debate about women’s normal bodily functions is taking a new and not necessarily helpful prominence; providing an unhelpful focus on difference which – life being what it is -normally equates with inequality. A new form of social control perhaps, unless matched by equal emphasis on the male equivalent?

For example,whilst it is very healthy that girls and women no longer have whisper darkly about that “time of the month” should they really be buying into the practice of sending themselves monthly period presents? Do we need a reward or a celebration for menstruating…unless an unwanted pregnancy is on the cards of course but that might not happen every month. And would require a different kind of present. (7) This smacks of the commercial manipulation of FM & the bullying of PBQ.

And the Oscars this year took their usual preoccupation with the female anatomy to a whole new level by providing in the goody bag for Oscar-losers a coupon for the O- shot for vaginal rejuvenation… There was no equivalent treatment for male also-rans.(8)

Moving towards the other end of the female life-cycle we now see a whole industry developing around menopause management with seminars for managers on how to manage the “hot flush” amongst their employees; cotton rather than nylon overalls on the factory floor, please; oh yes, and small desk fans for the clerical grades.

Managers should also be prepared for more- than- usual moodiness and hissy fits at all levels. (9)

Although it is good to educate all managers on the facts of life, legitimate information-sharing, designed to foster workplace harmony can soon be turned on its head, especially in dark economic times.

There is a danger if this is overdone that not only will women of child-bearing – aka “maternity benefits” – age be seen as a burden, especially to small businesses, but those tedious and tricky menopausal ones will also have to be discouraged from continuing to work.

There’ll be a very small window between being too fertile and too “flushed”; and a foolproof approach for sabotaging women’s career chances -along the lines of FM and PBQ – guaranteed.

But- hang on a minute! – are women the only humans with a life cycle? In the interests of complete equality we also need management seminars about the ways in which erectile dysfunction, beer belly and hair loss can affect the behaviour and judgement of male managers and other men towards their colleagues; and maybe a special session on the possible effects of having a wife with a more high-powered career.

(1) The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan W.W. Norton & Company Inc (1963)
(5) The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf Chatto & Windus Ltd (1990)
(7) OR
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