Friedan, Feminism and Fulfillment

In his “Writer’s Almanac” for today, Garrison Keillor talks about Betty Friedan who wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Keillor says:

Friedan wrote about what she called ‘the problem that has no name,’ found particularly among educated suburban women in the years after the end of World War II, women who were leading ostensibly idyllic domestic lives as busy housewives and mothers and yet who felt inexplicably unfulfilled, unhappy, and restless.

She wrote:

‘The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’

I’m sure it’s true that many wives and mothers then and now felt unfulfilled or suffocated at home. I would attribute this more to America’s affluence at the time – whereas in previous generations most women didn’t have the luxury of thinking about much beyond survival and the daily routine, in the post-WW II generation, the horizons expanded due to prosperity and the possibility of office work.

With that said, guess what: the secret is that men feel the exact same sense of ennui, despair and boredom at work that Friedan seems to locate in the home! Do you think it is somehow inherently exciting to get up at the same time five days a week, get in a car, commute to work listening to the same garbage on the radio, sit down at a desk and become a cog in the faceless corporate machine for 50 years? Or better yet, to mop floors, drive trucks, lay concrete, or whatever? Is this a life of dazzling fulfillment that men are conspiring to deny to women?

Far from it. And I think most women who get beyond college-age idealism find out the hard way that this is the case. I say the hard way, because by the time they realize this, it is often too late. They are hemmed in by college debts that need to be repaid, a kid or two at home and the built-in financial demands of a two-income lifestyle. Some find that when they have children they actually WANT to be at home with the kids, but now they can’t because of those same financial reasons. The expectation of college and career contributes to the delay in marriage. Women and men get married older and by the time they get around to having kids, it becomes more of a strain to bear them and raise them. Guess what? You don’t have as much energy to deal with screaming toddlers when you are 35 as opposed to 20 or 18. That might be one reason why God designed us for maximum reproductive potential at those younger ages!

With widespread abortion, birth control, and the expectation of wealthy, comfortable lives, I don’t expect the pattern of women working rather than mothering to change except in small pockets of resistance. At bottom, the idea that fulfillment is found in a sphere other than where we are is the classic “grass is greener” myth. Some jobs are inherently fulfilling, but not many in the big picture. The Christian ideal is that we find contentment in whatever role we are given, and sanctify the same. The Apostles tell us again and again to be content. This is not easy, it is the knife edge of sanctification, because jobs are tedious, hard, demanding and draining. Telling women that moving into corporate slavery is somehow a big advantage over raising kids and sitting at home is a lie. Unfortunately, it is a lie that we are now completely bought in to. Thanks, Betty Friedan.