a warning from home-making history
To see the existential confusion of Mad Men's disconsolate housewife is to grasp the relevance of The Feminine Mystique
March 10, 2010
In Mad Men, Betty Draper has everything a woman in the early 1960s could possibly want: a handsome high-earner husband, an attractive suburban house, two rambunctious kids, and a clatter of pleasant distractions – horse-riding, children's birthday parties, coffee klatches. Shy, demure, and terribly pretty, this waif has embraced what Betty Friedan would soon christen "the feminine mystique": a life of stay-at-home bliss, ferrying her kids to the dentist, finding a new lampshade for the den that matches the curtains, dressing to the nines for her husband's ad-agency dinners. Betty Draper presents a vision of exactly what postwar American women were encouraged to regard as the perfect life.
Yet something is wrong. Betty lies awake at night. She drinks during the day. A petulant furrow mars her lovely brow, and she's afflicted with uneasiness, mournfulness, disquiet. In an effort to resolve her aimless, elusive dissatisfaction, she sees a psychiatrist – who doesn't listen. He needn't. He's seen so many women like Betty before.
When she wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Friedan was herself living in the suburbs and raising her children. The results of a questionnaire she sent to graduates of her Ivy League women's college surprised her. Though most of her classmates had gone on to similar lives as gratuitously well-educated housewives, they didn't seem happy. Thus Friedan set out to describe why the exclusively wife-and-mother role prescribed as the postwar feminine ideal was a dangerously comfortable trap. In her groundbreaking work – re-issued in Britain this week – she encouraged women to enter higher education and pursue serious careers.
Yet these days, in both the US and the UK, more women enrol in universities than men. The term "career girl" long ago lost its frigid, arid stigma; working women in the west are now the norm. So has The Feminine Mystique mouldered to mere historical artefact?
Of course, there's nothing "mere" about this book, which not only recorded history, but changed it. If we now take it for granted that capable women get university educations, have careers, and earn their own incomes, that's in significant measure due to Betty Friedan. She challenged the assumption that females are necessarily homebodies, who find their true contentment in polishing furniture, sauteing corned-beef hash, and wiping runny noses. Not that long ago any woman who found this shut-in role unsatisfying was regarded as having something wrong with her. So the very seeming irrelevance of Friedan's text today is a tribute to its radical effect.
Nevertheless, women are still paid less on average than men, often for the same work. They remain underrepresented in management positions and still assume a disproportionate share of housekeeping and childcare. Selling women products based on unachievable idealisations of what it means to be female is still going great guns, from diet drinks to anti-ageing creams to plastic surgery. Scan the world leaders at a G20 summit, the current US Congress, or today's British parliament and count the female faces (don't worry – it won't take you long).
Even in the sexual arena, the constricting morality of the 1950s has been replaced by the default assumption that, unless you can come up with a good reason not to, you do it. The virtual obligation to put out on just about any date borders on a new slavery. For unattached women, to go from having to sleep with no one to having to sleep with everyone constitutes a dubious form of freedom.
Granted, Friedan may have placed excessive faith in work, not always a privilege. Manning the checkout till at Iceland can be every bit as monotonous and soul-destroying as scrubbing the kitchen floor. For many women today, a job is a joyless fiscal necessity. For a woman who does thankless cold-calling for telemarketers, baking her family a plum tart at the weekend may provide one of her few creative outlets.
Hence the recent emergence of women keen to restore the role of housewife and mother as a legitimate, defensible life choice. Fair enough, should her partner willingly assume the breadwinning burden, any contemporary woman can still embrace the feminine mystique. But in that case Friedan's warnings are as germane today as they were 50 years ago: go in with your eyes open.
Spoiled but mysteriously disconsolate, Betty Draper is exiled from the world that we career women now inhabit. With the division of labour in the household so stark, she has little real comprehension of what her husband gets up to on Madison Avenue. She loves her children, but she's lonely, unfocused, and tortured by existential confusion about what, exactly, all this ostensibly blissful domesticity is in the service of. So any woman seriously considering the new "freedom" to choose housewifery and motherhood as a substitute for a demanding career should watch every episode of Mad Men back to back, perusing the re-issue of The Feminine Mystique during the adverts.
Guardian News and Media Limited 2010