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Betty Friedan

Image: Betty Friedan, from the New York Times Betty Friedan, 85, died of congestive heart failure this weekend. The Feminine Mystique, the only book of hers that I have read, was a masterful study of popular culture in, and one of the most influential books of the mid twentieth century. It might have been subtitled, “How Freudian psychology, appliance makers, magazine publishers, and general public resistance got women out of the workplace, and how women suffered for it.” In her honor, her thesis, at length:

It is my thesis that the core of the problem for women today is not sexual [in saying this she’s responding to Freudians and to Kinsey] but a problem of identity—a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminin mystique. It is my thesis that as the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.

Biologists have recently discovered a “youth serum” which, if fed to young caterpillars in the larva state, will keep them from ever maturing into moths; they will live out their lives as caterpillars. The expectations of feminine fulfillment that are fed to women by magazines, television, movies, and books that popularize psychological half-truths, and by parents, teachers and counselors who accept the feminine mystique, operate as a kind of youth serum, keeping most women in the state of sexual larvae, preventing them from achieving the maturity of which they are capable. And there is increasing evidence that woman’s failure to grow to complete identity has hampered rather than enriched her sexual fulfillment, virtually doomed her to be castrative to her husband and sons, and caused neuroses, or problems as yet unnamed as neuroses, equal to those caused by sexual repression.

There have been identity crises for man at all the crucial turning points in human history, though those who lived through them did not give them that name. It is only in recent years that the theorists of psycology, sociology and theology have isolated this problem, and given it a name. But it is considered a man’s problem. It is defined, for man, as the crisis of growing up, of choosing his identity, “the decision as to what one is and is going to be,” in the words of the brilliant psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson….

But why have theorists not recognized this same identity crisis in women? In terms of the old conventions and the new feminine mystique women are not expected to grow up to find out who they are, to choose their human identity. Anatomy is woman’s destiny, say the theorists of femininity; the identity of woman is determined by her biology.

But is it? More and more women are asking themselves this question. As if they were waking from a coma, they ask, “Where am I… what am I doing here?” For the first time in their history, women are becoming aware of an identity crisis in their own lives, a crisis which began many generations ago, has grown worse with each succeeding generation, and will not end until they, or their daughters, turn an unknown corner and make of themselves and their lives the new image that so many women now so desperately need.

In a sense that goes beyond any one woman’s life, I think this is the crisis of women growing up—a turning point from an immaturity that has been called femininity to full human identity. I think women had to suffer this crisis of identity, which began a hundred years ago, and have to suffer it still today, simply to become fully human.

That, my friends, needs saying today almost as much as it needed saying in 1963. May all women and all men be ever empowered to become fully themselves.

 

Comments

Gaack! That picture of Friedan is doing to me what the bust of Benjamin Franklin did. It’s creeping me out. I’ve got to stop putting mugshots in these pages.