Saturday, 20 March 2010

Betty Friedan

I have been re-reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique having first read it way back in the early 1970s. It examines the trend in 1950s and 1960s America which glorified women's maternal and housewifely roles as being the only roles for women. Early marriage was common as were large families. But equally common were high rates of mental and physical illness among housewives and mothers. Half the stay at home mothers seemed to be on anti depressants or tranquilisers in order to help them 'adjust to their feminine role'.

That phrase, to me, says it all. If so many people need the help of drugs or analysis to adjust to a role which is supposed to be the best thing for them to do with their lives then there is something wrong with the role and not the people concerned. There are some real gems in this book - such as the man who wondered why women took so much time over housework and domestic stuff generally. He took over a household for a few days and in the first day had done a mammoth amount of cleaning and washing as well as baking cakes and preparing meals in advance and looking after the children.

Because they were confined to their homes - like benign concentration camps - the women made their work last as long as possible and turned it into an art form. The author compared two families - one where the mother had a career of her own and one where the mother stayed at home. Where the mother had a career she was able to fit housework into the time before or after work and generally had time in the evening to sit down and read a book. The family where the mother stayed at home the husband had to do a lot of the housework because his wife never seemed to get it all done and she always seemed to be busy and had no leisure time for herself.

The author suggests that if anyone is bored with no outlet for their creative energies they will seek to expand the work they do have to do and probably carry it out to a far higher standard than is necessary. Housework is boring but necessary so you get it done in the shortest possible time and move on to something more interesting.

Housework and childcare for most women are boring and necessary work but society sees them as the be all and end all of a woman's existence. Are we in danger of doing the same thing today? Martha Stewart anyone?

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