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Betty Friedan and the Life of the Mind

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Okay–the program that runs this blog  just had an update, and now it looks different and kind of odd.

I’ll get used to it, but in the short run, I’m going to be referring to it every once in a while, when it does things I’m not expecting.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here, as the title to this post suggests, so let me get on with it.

I’ve just reread The Feminine Mystique for the first time in what is probably more than a decade.  I do that every once in a while just to see how I feel about the books over time, and sometimes to see if I’ve remembered the books correctly.

And on that second point, this has been one of the odder of my experiences.

First, you must remember that when this book first came out, and I first read it, I loved it down to the ground. 

I loved it in a way I rarely love books that are not fiction.

And it was, for me, one of the first moves I made to shake off all those things my childhood and early adolescence was that I needed so desperately to escape.

So, a few notes:

1) If you haven’t read this lately, you’d be surprised at how old fashioned it is.  This is not the feminism of the Seventies.  It’s a book about women and the Life of the Mind, with the capitals definitely implied.

Its few of a college education is what my view of it was at the time–the liberal arts, with training in the hard sciences, the social sciences and the humanities, not for a specific vocation (which was left to graduate and professional schools), but for the dual purpose of rigorously training the intelligence and introducing students to the great questions of live and the traditions of Western Civilization.

And because of that

2) This is a book aimed not at Everywoman, but specifically at the brightest women out there, the ones who could do a rigorous college course as it used to be defined. 

It was not a book for women whose level of talent fitted them for being cashiers or even typists.

And Friedan’s assumption was that we should direct our resources at our most talented young people, female as well as male. 

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the assumption now, which is that we can cut “gifted” programs all we want, because those kids will make out fine on their own, but we must aim resources at the marginally intelligent and the academically untalented to see if we can’t bring them up to something like speed.

I admit to being on the side of Friedan’s original thought–pouring our resources into our best performing students got us the Apollo space program, pouring our resources into our worst tends to get us things like the Atlanta test cheating scandal.

It’s important to note,  however, that Friedan neither suggests nor approves anything like the Seventies idea of “affirmative action.”  She doesn’t want women to get breaks, she wants to make the hoops they have to jump through even higher, the standards they have to meet even more stringent.

3) Because this book is what it is, it is aimed specifically at middle and upper middle class women who have had some college education, or whose abilities would have allowed them to get a college education if they hadn’t gotten married at nineteen.

And one of the reasons this book had such a powerful effect on me was that these were the women I knew, the women of my mother’s generation, the schoolgirls of my own, who not only had restricted themselves to the tiny little space of home-and-family, but who were hell bent on restricting every other woman to it.

And who were, by the way, gut wrenchingly, bitterly, angrily miserable.

I do not have a single example of a woman in my mother’s generation who was actually happy as a wife and mother. 

I had two ambitions growing up:  to be an honest to God published writer, and to be nothing at all like my mother.

On that level, I was at something of  a disadvantage–I look like my mother, but I think like my father, and always did.  You’ve never seen two such thoroughly mismatched people (in intellect and temperament), as my mother and myself. 

The first time I noticed that the woman seemed to hate me, I was about seven.  And it only got worse with time.

Personal circumstances notwithstanding,  however, when Friedan talked about the anger, the provinciality, the narrowness, the resentment–there it was, in my own house, and among my mother’s friends, and among those relatives and schoolmates of my own generation who were buying into the whole thing.

And what Betty Friedan told me was that I was right to value the things I valued, and that what I valued was better than what they valued.

And that brings me to

4) One of the constant refrains in the years since the publication of this book, from the left as well as from the right, is that it is wrong for women like me to believe that our choice (education, that life of the mind thing, a career instead of a primary identification as wife-and-mother)–

That it is wrong for women like me to believe that our choice is objectively better than the choice of women who decide to define themselves principally as wives and mothers.

Of course, the women who decide to be primarily wives and mothers are not exhorted not to declare their own choice as superior. 

It is only women like me who must apologize for our lives, and assure all those women who didn’t use their educations that they’ve really made the best and noblest choice, the superior choice, we’re just not good enough to make it ourselves.

And to this I say

5) Why?

If I thought the choice of defining myself first as a wife and mother was the best one, I’d have made that choice.

In fact, I don’t think that choice is the best one–and for women with high levels of education, I think that choice is damned near criminal.

Places at top ranked educational institutions are limited, and the competition for them is tough.  If your intention is to tread water through four years Harvard and then bury yourself in domesticity, never again to read anything serious even in your spare time and never to contribute anything serious to the wider world around you–you should opt for the local community college and let somebody who’s really serious take your place.

And if you’ve got a really good mind and decide to do nothing about it at all, to do the least work possible–no, sorry, there’s cancer to be cured and a thousand other things that need doing, and your choice is not only objectively less good than that of someone who at least tries, but it objectively immoral.

You’ve only got one chance to live this life on earth.  If you’re religious, think of the parable of the three servants whose master gave them each three talents and watched what they did with them.

Your job, in other words, is to use your God or nature given talents to their fullest possible expression.  And if you don’t do that, you’ve wasted what life you’ve had.

6) Before you start ranting and raving about how elitist I am, remember this–

The wives and mothers are NOT being told they must apologize to women like me and assure us that our choice is really the better one.

They can declare their superiority all they want, deride the choices we’ve made, and rail at us for being pretentious, elitist snobs when we try to defend ourselves.

If it’s alright for them to do that, then it’s certainly all right for me to insist that my way is best, without compromise, and without equivocation.

Of course, I do know that real life is not that simple.  Some people choose not to develop their talents.  Others get stuck through circumstances beyond their control.  Others are not capable of developing very far or very much.

But of those of us who have the choice, those who make the choice to fully develop themselves have made the better and more defensible choice.

And in a world of limited resources where we can either put in the time and effort on our best and most talented students or put that same time and effort on our least–

Well, if it has to be one or the other, the better choice is to put those resources into the most talented.

In the long run, that will end up helping everybody.

Written by janeh

August 18th, 2012 at 9:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Betty Friedan and the Life of the Mind'

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  1. I read Friedan so long ago and, although I thought it made a big impact on me, now you could have been describing a book I’d never read.

    One of my main complaints about my youth has always been that it took place in a boring small town of a somewhat unusual type. I think yours had more constraints! Although very very few of the women worked outside the home, I don’t recall any attacks or pressure going either way until much later, and then I mostly read it in books and magazines. Some of my aunts and my mother’s friends never worked out outside the home. Some did after the children were born. I think my mother wasn’t particularly happy to be a housewife and mother, but she was working towards getting her qualifications as a teacher when illness in the family put an end to that.

    No one seemed to be expected to apologize for their choices.

    I’ve known – and read the writings of – people who did and do feel pressured (on both sides), but didn’t experience that in my formative years. Any pressure was to do well, and that can be hurtful as well, when you don’t. But learning to deal with such things is part of growing up.

    I won’t say that the better choice for someone wih a good brain is the Life of the Mind unless I know what the other choices and duties are. There are probably plenty of areas in which a good brain is an advantage, and not every individual with one is best suited by an academic career – and if not that, well, they have to learn some skill that will enable them to pay the bills so that they can pursue their studies on their own.

    As for your last point – help is needed for the weak – probably more than for the strong. Even more important, if we’re talking K-12, is not to shove too many of the mass in the middle into the ‘weak’ category by poor teaching and streaming.


    18 Aug 12 at 12:52 pm

  2. For me, the author who defined the Great Evil and gave me the intellectual tools to fight it was Ayn Rand, with a little help from Stapledon and Heinlein.

    But Ayn Rand’s Great Evil may not have been so far from Betty Friedan’s–or at least the parts we identified and found useful. For me it was opinions as good as facts, networking taking the place of integrity and need as a blank check on the able and hard-working.

    Personal and social circumstances may have made a difference too. Apart from being a male, I was probably about two notches down in SES, and none of the family or neighbors struck me as miserable–crazy, yes: miserable, no. Several of the mothers wouldn’t let a child play indoors because it would have interfered with the cleaning regimen. But at least two of the father were out with concrete rollers smoothing the lawn on weekends. At the time, they looked certifiable, but not unhappy. Now, I see people who survived the Depression and WWII, finally landing a home of their own in the suburbs, trying for normal and overshooting it a little. Generally, after the kids were old enough, the mothers went back to work, and the daughters usually got more education, married later, had fewer kids and defined “old enough” younger. I can remember family pressure on daughters to get career-qualifying credentials “just in case.” Collectively that makes a serious difference.

    I don’t remember anyone criticising a woman for having a career–that would include a first cousin who never married–and I can remember a fair bit of 50’s or early 60’s television and film in which the happy ending was DAD not putting career ahead of family. As I said, perhaps overshooting normal a bit.

    Now let me say a couple of things to provoke outrage.

    Part of the difficulty women of Freidan’s generation experienced came from two economic ideas. One is what’s often called the “lump of labor fallacy”–that there is only so much work to be done, and that if Betty, Roosevelt of Ji-yul does it, Joe, Bob and Sam suffer. The other goes by a variety of names, beginning with “to each according to his needs” and most recently “living wage”–the notion that pay should not be related to output, but to consumption. And of course Joe, Bob and Sam have wives and kids to support. It’s interesting to me that neither idea has gone away. They’re still popular in much the same circle, but the lines have been redrawn a bit. Betty is now on the inside, but poor Ji-yul…

    Then there’s my mother–substantially brighter than Dad, who was no slouch. Mom had a really good high school education, but nothing afterward, having married at 17. She worked unskilled labor jobs until she had me, and put her whole heart and soul into being a wife and mother. Apart from me, she adopted eight children, and raised maybe 3-6 others in part. Given the circumstances, I think you can make a good statistical case that four of those dozen kids should be dead or in prison–would have been, if it hadn’t been for her. On her fiftieth high school reunion, one of her clasmates observed “I thought you were the one who was really gong to make a difference.” So no: whatever went on in Connecticut suburbs in your youth, the pressure is not only one way.

    On the other hand, we can all take comfort in how opening up the political arena to women and minorities has raised the level of competence and improved the moral tone of our national political life. Just compare 1928-1960 with 1980-2012.

    Or perhaps not.


    18 Aug 12 at 2:33 pm

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