January 2014 Print

Feminism at Fifty: The Feminine Mystique Critiqued

by Fr. Jonathan Loop, SSPX

Twenty thirteen marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique,1 a passionate attack by a woman named Betty Friedan on the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. In it, she claims that the majority of women embraced these responsibilities because it was what was expected of them by society, despite the fact that it left them unfulfilled. According to Mrs. Friedan, an unthinking attitude prevailed among both men and women, both high and low society, which viewed women as incapable of any worthwhile contribution to civic life. For her part, she believed that to be a mere “housewife” rendered one somehow less than a human being, and she recommended that women strive to take their place in the world outside the home, especially by seeking higher education.

Three years after the publication of her influential work, she would be elected the first president of the National Organization of Women, helping to draft its first mission statement, which begins: “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”2 Given the enormous influence of her work—both in print and in the political arena—it is appropriate to examine her principal arguments to see what is at the basis of the harsh attack against motherhood in our day.

“The Happy Housewife Heroine”

To simplify, we may identify two basic levels of Mrs. Friedan’s arguments. She begins by addressing some of the particular attitudes towards women which dominated American society in the 1950s before moving to a more profound and philosophical attack of the traditional institution of marriage. Her first tactic may be seen in one of the early chapters of her work, where she conducts an analysis of the content of women’s magazines for the previous 20 years and argues that she finds in them a gradually growing presentation of what she calls “the happy housewife heroine.” In other words, these magazines (such as McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, and Redbook) tended to propose as models women who sacrificed their own personal ambitions in order to be the perfect wife and mother. She writes: “The end of the road is togetherness, where the woman has no independent self...; she exists only for and through her husband and children.”3 This was, in the mind of Mrs. Friedan, a marked and lamentable departure from the literature available in the same magazines in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which were more likely to praise women who sought fulfillment in endeavors unrelated to matrimony.

Mrs. Friedan also points out that in many cases the heroines of such stories or articles tended to glory in their lack of personal opinions about any subjects other than their ability to please their husbands. She argues that at least one publication went so far as to “assume frankly that women are brainless, fluffy creatures.”4 In this regard, she states that the women depicted in the women’s magazines became progressively younger—not so much in age as in maturity. “They seem to get younger all the time—in looks and in a childlike kind of dependence.”5 The reason for this is that they “have no vision of the future, except to have a baby.” In other words, she claims that the model wife as presented in the popular culture of the day has the maturity of an eight-year-old who likes to play with dolls. Interestingly enough, on the surface her words sound remarkably similar to a comment of Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii: “Nor does [subjection] imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs.”6 Wives are not children and ought not to be treated as such. Evidently, the similarity remains on the surface, as may be seen by the fact that the context of this papal citation is the wholehearted endorsement of the subjection of wives to their husbands and, as we shall see, their subordination to the common good of the family. Mrs. Friedan would have dismissed this as a half-hearted attempt to treat women as unique persons while still denying them the substance of individuality.

Indeed, her attacks against the division of labor in traditional marriage—namely, that it denies women any personal ambitions and tends to prevent them from coming of age—rest on deeper foundations. This becomes evident at the conclusion of the chapter we have been discussing, where she asks: “Why, with the removal of all the...barriers that kept women from being man’s equal, a person in her own right, an individual free to develop her own potential, why would she accept this new image which insists she is not a person but a ‘woman,’ by definition barred from the freedom of human existence and a voice in human destiny?”7 Her contempt for a vision of womanhood tied to the majestic reality of conferring new life—both physical and moral—originates in her understanding of human freedom and self-realization (i.e., the development of one’s potential).

The Courage to Be an Individual?

This becomes clear in a later chapter of the book titled “The Forfeited Self.” There she posits that: “Thinkers in many fields...postulate some positive growth tendency within the organism...which drives it to fuller development, to self-realization.”8 She explains: “This ‘will to power’...as it is called...is the individual affirming his existence and his potentialities as a being in his own right; it is the ‘courage to be an individual.’ ” Despite the technical jargon which she employs, the basic idea is quite simple: in order to prove that one exists, one must sharply distinguish oneself from everything that surrounds oneself. One can only do this by indulging in self-expression, by being “creative,” and unleashing one’s hidden talents. This vision stands in stark contrast to that of Catholicism, which takes for granted that we exist and which argues that our goal in life is to conform ourselves to a reality which exists independently from us and is superior to us. As our Lord Jesus Christ stated: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”9

These two opposing viewpoints may be made more intelligible if we consider their application to the field of painting and sculpture. Our Lord’s understanding of man’s perfection may be illustrated by the art of someone like Giotto or Raphael. These artists viewed their art as successful inasmuch as it faithfully reproduced reality. Mrs. Friedan’s understanding of human worth may be compared to the work of Jackson Pollock or any other purveyor of modern art. Such art is deemed successful not in spite of the fact that it is unintelligible to anyone but the artist, but precisely for that reason. For such art is meant to be an expression of that person’s individuality, something which by its nature is incommunicable.

A Woman Must Be Free

To return to women, Friedan argues that to see them as being merely wives and mothers is to deprive them on a very deep level from the capability of expressing themselves and, as a result, of affirming their personal existence. They would exist only in relation to another and therefore cease to exist in their own right. In order to “become what she can be,” a woman must be free to abandon the four walls of her home and do whatever she pleases without reference to her husband and children. This is one reason why Friedan was such an avid supporter of abortion at the discretion of the woman—i.e., on demand. For she must be free to choose whether or not she wants to accept the burdens of child-rearing and to express her individuality in this manner.

Mrs. Friedan is, in effect, applying the principles of the philosophical system of existentialism to women and marriage. As her use of the expres­sion “will to power” implies, she owes not a little to one of the fathers of modern existentialism, Friedrich Nietzsche. Among other things, she shares with him a fascination for the future. Indeed, she identifies as the peculiarly human trait: “the ability to transcend the present and to act in light of the possible, the mysterious capacity to shape the future.”10 This attitude contains a deep if implicit rejection of the past, which means a repudiation of one’s forebears. In other words, one disavows one’s forefathers and, ultimately, God, “from whom all Fatherhood is named on heaven and on earth.”11 This is made clear in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Exiles shall ye be from all fatherlands and forefather-lands! Your children’s land shall ye love: let this love be your new nobility.”12 The worst of all fatherlands, in Nietzsche’s mind, the one from which men ought especially to become voluntary exiles, is Christianity, as he makes clear earlier in the same section: “[Do not count it an honor]...that a Spirit called Holy, led your forefathers into promised lands, which I do not praise: for where the worst of all trees grew—the cross—in that land there is nothing to praise!”

While it would be a stretch to claim that Mrs. Friedan had these lines before her mind when she criticized the traditional role of women as wives and mothers, she was undoubtedly influenced by Nietzsche’s spirit. This becomes evident when she implicitly repudiates the comparison of the housewife to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “And the American housewife is reminded that Catholic countries of the Middle Ages ‘elevated the gentle and inconspicuous Mary into the Queen of Heaven and built their loveliest cathedrals to Notre Dame.’ ”13 In other words, the Catholic ideal of women imitating the hidden virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary serves only to trap women in the self-effacing world of housewifery. Thus, Our Lady as a model must be cast aside so as to permit a more free woman to come to the fore.

Mrs. Friedan’s attack on motherhood as outlined above has had a powerful and deep influence on contemporary American society. We traditional Catholics would be lying to ourselves if we believe we have remained unaffected by such a woman’s arguments. Certainly, we reject the more obvious points in her program, such as abortion and birth control, but we tend to think like her when it comes to our attitudes concerning the relative importance of such things as women’s dress, education, dating, and employment outside the home. To counter the deeply nihilistic thinking inherent in modern feminism requires more than that traditional Catholic women wear dresses on Sundays and have as many children as God allows.

Rather, it requires a deep recognition of the order God wills as made known to us by the Church and a willingness to submit to it, as Pope Pius XI makes clear in Casti Connubii: “It is necessary that a filial and humble obedience towards the Church should be combined with devotedness to God and the desire of submitting to Him.”14 We are called not merely to avoid what the Church declares to be sinful, but to understand and to embrace generously what she proclaims we must do: to respect the hierarchy in marriage and the subsequent division of labor within the home. This re­quires, of course, that we study what the Church and the popes (such as Pius XII) have taught regarding the marital state. Only in this manner shall we have the tools to defend the traditional roles of men and women in the family against the attacks of thinkers like Friedan and their unthinking followers in our own day. Although on the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique her ideas appear triumphant, we can work in our families to ensure both that they do not reign in our homes and that this date represents a high water mark for her influence.

Fr. Jonathan Loop was born and raised an Episcopalian. He attended college at the University of Dallas, where he received the grace to convert through the intermediary of several of his fellow students, some of whom later went on to become religious with the Dominicans of Fanjeaux. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy, he enrolled in St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, where he was ordained in June 2011.

1 The Feminine Mystique, 20th Anniversary edition (New York: Dell Publ. Co., 1983) p. 356.

2 “Honoring Our Founders” from National Organization of Women website: http://www.now.org/history/founders.html. Accessed on 23 December 2013. Friedan would also contribute to the founding of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws in 1969, especially by encouraging the organization to promote a policy of permitting abortion “at the discretion of the mother,” as opposed to allowing it merely in more limited cases of rape, incest, etc.

3 Feminine Mystique, p. 47.4 Ibid., p. 65.

5 Ibid., p. 44.

6 Casti Connubii, para. 27.

7 Feminine Mystique, p. 68.

8 Feminine Mystique, p. 310.

9 St. John 8:32.

10 Feminine Mystique, p. 312.

11 Ephesians 3:14.

12 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Third Part: “Old & New Tables,” section 12.

13 Feminine Mystique, p. 42.

14 Casti Connubii, para. 103.