The decline of the family’s mystique

Fifty years on from Betty Friedan’s seminal The Feminine Mystique, family life could do with more supporters.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Feminism

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Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the bestselling book widely credited with launching the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.

Of course, no one calls it a liberation movement any more. The ‘liberation’ part was dropped from parlance early on and the women’s movement, as it is now called, refers to a specific historical episode. The only thing that hasn’t changed from 1963 is the fundamental question Betty Friedan posed: how can we organise domestic life so that it does not thwart women’s human potential?

The question was posed much more starkly back then. After the horrors and upheaval of the Second World War, millions of Americans longed to return to normality. Women who had worked during the war gave up their jobs to get married, set up homes and start families. The postwar boom meant that men could usually bring home a family wage, which made it possible for their wives to stay at home keeping house and looking after the children. But it was also a period of political and social conformism. Men and women adhered to a very traditional gender division of labour, which left women financially dependent on, and legally inferior to, men.

This gender divide was so all-pervasive that women who aspired to be more than wives and mothers actually believed there was something wrong with them. When The Feminine Mystique first appeared in February 1963, it moved readers to tears and changed women’s lives. It wasn’t so much because of Friedan’s analysis or prose, but because the book reassured them that the demoralisation they felt was not some personal failure on their part but the inevitable result of subordinating their human potential to their roles as wives and mothers.

The movement sparked by The Feminine Mystique promised to liberate women’s potential and change the world, and for a time it seemed like it might do just that. To girls growing up in the 1960s and 70s, it seemed there was virtually no social or legal barrier we could not break and nothing men could do that we could not do as well or better. The problem, of course, was that we never answered the original question in the process: how can we organise domestic life so that it does not come at the expense of women’s human potential?

Fast forward 50 years to today. The Feminine Mystique‘s resonance has largely dissipated. No one really believes that women are less capable than men, and the vast majority of men and women envision sharing the tasks of domestic work and raising children equally. And yet somehow, the problem raised by The Feminine Mystique persists in the form of the problem of ‘gender equality and work-life balance’.

Somehow, despite their best intentions, men and women find themselves slipping into traditional gender roles they never wanted to fulfill. Why?

One reason, we’re told, is that American society never developed the systemic support that would make equally shared domestic work possible: employment policies like paid sick and family leave, generous maternity and paternity leave and other legal protections that mean women – and men – would not pay a penalty for doing their share of caring for their family.

This seems like a reasonable criticism, and it is undoubtedly true that the US has some of the worst employment practices in the world. And yet somehow the issues of gender equality and work-life balance seem less than inspiring.

Gender equality in particular is a term so general as to be almost meaningless. After all, who wants gender inequality? But beyond that, what it means in a practical sense is anyone’s guess. Practically any issue can be understood as an issue of gender equality, including, but not limited to, education, women’s health, climate change, workplace practices and development and economic growth. And just to confuse things, in some instances gender equality may not refer to women at all.

Work-life balance is more specific but equally anemic as a cause. It’s usually meant to refer to employment policies designed to allow men and women to participate in childcare on an equal basis. But one man’s work-life balance is another man’s source of resentment. People without kids, or the self-proclaimed ‘child-free’, are often entirely hostile to these policies, sometimes to the extent that they argue that offering maternity and paternity benefits to their co-workers amounts to them subsidising someone else’s lifestyle choices.

Ultimately, it may be the case that the real reason we have trouble resolving the question of domestic life has less to do with the gender division of labour and workplace practices, and more to do with suspicion of the family in general. After all, since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, family life has been steadily devalued. It is now often viewed with suspicion, at worst as an arena of potential abuse, and at best as a sphere in which bad views and habits are passed on. ‘The domestic’ is viewed as inherently problematic rather than as requiring reorganisation.

The fact that raising the next generation is seen as a mere lifestyle choice, or just another platform on which to project gender equality, shows how estranged we have become from our own future.

Perhaps it’s time to think less about the work-life balance, and gender equality and more about the vitally important role that families play, and what we can do to support the men and women who take on this important commitment.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Feminism


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