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The Feminine Critique

by Anna Lau 13 days ago in feminism

A brief retrospective on the feminine mystique and the era of the glorified homemaker

People have said we are in the midst of the "third-wave" of feminism, but undoubtedly there have been waves throughout all of history. Some were small and took place in homes or local communities; some were large and influenced whole nation-states; and occasionally there were tidal waves that women around the globe could feel the impact of.

Any time a woman (or man) takes a stance against the male-dominated norms of society for the opportunity and equality of women, a small ripple is created. When there are enough ripples, a wave is bound to follow. 

If we are now in this supposed third-wave, what was the second one about? How far has society come since then? Are women riding the same wave, or is this a new one entirely? These were the questions that led me to recently read the Feminine Mystique, almost 60 years after it was first published. This is the book that is often attributed with starting the second-wave, so I figured that would be a good place to start searching for answers. It would provide a snapshot in time: the moment right before the floodgates broke and the ripples were finally big enough to do some damage (control).

But before I get into that, I would like to point out that this book absolutely has its faults. For starters, it left out a very large chunk of women: the non-white and non-middle class. Betty Friedan wrote about a problem that was only endured by white, upper- and middle-class mothers and wives, leaving the rest out entirely. In essence, it was racist, classist and homophobic.

Nevertheless, it did raise real problems that existed in society and those are what I want to look at - how far have we come in resolving these problems? In terms of the empowerment of women, how does this time period compare to the current one we are living in?

The premise of the Feminine Mystique was "the problem that had no name" which plagued (white, middle-class) American women from the 1940s through to when the book was written in 1963, and beyond. The problem that had no name was essentially women being kept from growing to their full human potential. This was the problem, and it was caused by the feminine mystique itself.

This mystique wasn't "women are mysterious", but rather "women are unhappy and we don't know why". These were the golden years of the housewife. The glorified homemaker that both every and no woman wanted to be. Society said she was the ultimate model of feminine perfection, so women strived to be her. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and all the others concluded that a woman won't be fulfilled until she satisfies her biological destiny - a husband and children. So these women would have one child, then another, and another, always trying to hit that satisfaction level.

But to her dismay, no matter how many children she had, that full sense of satisfaction never came. The educators had prepared her with college courses on marriage and homemaking, so what was wrong with her - why wasn't she happy? Her community and friends and husband wanted her at home; her children "needed" her there; but she grew resentful and angry toward them for not being able to fix the hole in her life. The advertisements and magazines made her feel guilty for even thinking about her own self when she had a family to care for, so she bought the newest kitchen appliance and vacuumed the floors for the third time that week instead. They didn't need it, but what else was she going to do?

Further and further into this tired, dull life she fell. Angry, but not sure why; jealous, but not sure of whom. She finally has the life she has been told will make her happiest, the life she has been chasing after since she was only a girl. She put off her studies to find the husband, she left her career to have the children, she has been doing everything society told her to do, so why isn't it enough?

The answer, of course, was that she was lacking meaning and purpose. She wasn't a whole, complete person because she never grew and developed into one. She restricted her own potential because her aim was so low. She reached for the clouds, not the stars.

In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the top shelf human need is self-actualisation. Maslow said, "What man can be, he must be"... see any problem with that sentence? Maslow forgot 50% of his subjects. Self-actualisation is essentially one's ability to pursue and achieve her full potential. (You noticed that 'her' much quicker than you did the 'he', didn't you?) The women trapped by the feminine mystique were not able to pursue, let alone achieve, their full potential. Only men were allowed to do that.

Of course, some women did achieve self-actualisation through parenting. That is wonderful for them. However, women are not all the same. They have different interests, personalities, irritants and quirks. So when society tried grouping half the population into the occupation of housewife, it was ultimately unsuccessful. We know what happened next: the second-wave occurred, the mystique was lifted, and women are no longer expected to sit at home and play Betty Crocker in the majority of American households.

So we are all good then, right? Women broke free and men welcomed them to the adult world to pursue their wildest dreams?

Considering that in today's society combining the words "ambitious" and "woman" are usually not meant to be a compliment, I would have to say no. "But Maslow's top shelf human need is the pursuit of his, I mean her, potential. How can one go about pursuing without any ambition?" you might ask. And there it is! The new problem that has no name. What shall we call this one? The Feminine Critique? 

Society may be "better than it was", but every society still imposes expectations and standards on women that are different from men. Every society still analyses and diagnoses "what is wrong with women" without actually listening to them or including them in that conversation (read: including them fully in society). Every society critiques a little differently, but they all do it. And as long as they continue excluding and critiquing women into submission, women won't reach their full potential.

Today's society says women are free to pursue what the women trapped by the feminine mystique could not. Yes, this is true in theory, but in practice are women truly free to achieve on the same level as men? Let's take a closer look at that, from society's point of view, and see what conclusion we come to.

If you know who Jordan Firstman is - @jtfirstman on IG - he does marvellous impressions and I imagine society talking in his voice for this next part. It helps.

Society says:

"You (woman) can go after anything you want in life; we let you into colleges, we gave you the vote. Look, some of you are even in the White House! So go, be free and pursue that top shelf goodness...

...however, don't be too determined about it, we don't want you to come off as pushy. O, and also, remember those years you spent bent over the stove and the sink and the baby's crib? Well, we are going to need to keep all that going for now. We will figure out a better arrangement one day. Besides, look how far we have let you come! You can be anything you want now, remember? So work, but only when it doesn't interfere with your home responsibilities. 

And if you have a kid, we will totally support you. I mean like, childcare will exist, and you may even still have your job when you return. But, not if you wait too long. No guarantees, you know? You may even get a promotion one day, but not if you ask for it. You don't want to be pushy, remember? And to be honest, we will probably just give it to a man anyway.

But keep at it, I don't think that ceiling is a permanent fixture, it's at least a little leaky because some women have gotten through. In theory, that could be you too. Just a warning though, no matter where you are on the ladder, I just have to keep your pay below your male counterparts - you don't want their egos to get hurt, right? What do you think people would say about a society where women earn as much as men? How emasculated I would feel...

Men may say things about your woman body parts or make mating noises at you in a wide variety of settings. It could be anywhere really: the mall, the bar, the gym, the office - that is a big one. They may even try to touch you or kiss you or even mate you without your permission. But that is just man's nature. He is used to control and power (he has had it for many millenia, remember?) and you know, some men just can't help themselves.

All you have to do is not ask for it. I don't mean that literally of course, because believe it or not that tactic doesn't always work. I am talking like wearing clothes that make him attracted to you: jeans where he can see the shape of the lower half, a shirt that allows for your top half to be imagined, or it could just be the fact that there is a woman body under your clothes and he knows it. If a man attempts unwanted advances, it is likely because one of these outfits was being worn.

And I might as well tell you my expectation's for how you are to look, since it ultimately always comes back to that. It's pretty simple really. Tina Fey figured it out and outlined it perfectly in her book "Bossypants":

• Caucasian blue eyes

• full Spanish lips

• a classic button nose

• hairless Asian skin with a California tan

• a Jamaican dance hall ass

• long Swedish legs

• small Japanese feet

• the abs of a lesbian gym owner

• the hips of a nine-year-old boy

• the arms of Michelle Obama

• and doll tits

That's it.

O and you know all those life-saving medications you take, and the seatbelts you wear to reduce the chance of death by 50%, and the masks you wear when there is a global pandemic and you make up the majority of healthcare workers saving all the lives? Yeah… the funder, the researcher, the subjects of the studies that determine safety & efficacy, hell even the little crash dummy itself will be majority male (mm for short). Cities? Designed by mm. Religions? Run by mm. Those that create the laws? Mm. Govern the laws? Mm. Record the history of humanity? Mm - they have always been the winners, remember? 

And just for fun, we are going to throw a tax on tampons because the mms just can't wrap their heads around how preventing a monthly public uterine haemorrhage is a basic necessity. (If only for a day he lived in a world where women decide themselves that it isn't a basic necessity, he would quickly change his mind.)

But! Woman has equal opportunity. Same thing we told the minorities. Speaking of, non-white, non-hetero, non-cis women have the added bonus of their own unique set of expectations and critiques in addition to these. But we will save that for another day.

So to summarise:

1. pursue, but not in an ambitious way 

2. work full-time, but don't forget to keep that home clean and partner fed... you are so good at it! 

3. have children, but don't expect any support from me. O, except when you DON'T actually want or have the means to have children, then I will be there making sure that you do 

4. be uniquely beautiful AND conform to the above-mentioned beauty rules, but make sure its in a nonchalant, just-rolled-out-of-bed sort of way

5. make sure you are never "asking for it" with actions or clothes that remind men of your woman body, but also just accept the human nature of man's desire and inability to control himself; essentially, unwanted advances are on you

6. participate in (and pay into) society, but don't expect to be a part of the governing of it 

7. same goes for all institutions really - religious, academic, research - you may participate, but always remember these systems were designed by mms for the default human being, which happens to be a man

8. o and NEVER talk about your period

If you can follow that critique, my lady, you will achieve your full potential!"

So, reader, what do you think? Did the mystical plague end with the second-wavers? Are women finally free to reach their full potentials and contribute to society in the same way as men?

I would have to say no. The mid-20th century feminine mystique hasn't gone away, it has just taken on a different, 21st century form. Women have overcome many of the barriers that those riding the second wave had to face, but the core problem is still very much present: women are unable to pursue their full potentials. They are no longer trapped in their homes (at least in some countries), but they are still trapped within this critique.

But this is how waves work: one feeds into the next, which feeds the next, and so on. Those fighting for gender equality will continue to create ripples and waves until the root problem is solved, that is until women are truly free to pursue their fullest potential, until women are afforded the same benefits as men, until the default human is just a human.

The good news is that it is not just women who will benefit from equality, but the mms of the world will as well! Because when we finally unlock the full potential of women (and minorities), we will unlock the full potential of our communities, our nations, and our world.

Think about it: if a person only uses 50% of their intellect and abilities, they could never possibly reach their full potential. Similarly, as long as the world continues to underutilise half of its population by restricting its growth and contributions, it will never reach its full potential. Holding women back is holding society back. Just as women have historically reached for the clouds, so has the world for some 15,000 years.  

So, to the mms of the world: these waves won't stop until the riders are satisfied, so you might as well jump on. It will benefit you, the women in your life, your nation, and the whole world.

How, you ask? Actual evidence concludes that with gender equality comes stronger, happier partnerships/marriages; a more prosperous economy with more jobs and higher wages; a substantial increase in GDP (read: a couple TRILLION dollars for the US and $28 trillion for the world); better standards of living; more peace, less war; safer and healthier communities...just to name a few.

As you can see, reader, society is actually doing you and your country a disservice at the moment. It contains and is responsible for 100% of the people in it, but it only fully empowers 50%. As a result, everyone is worse off. That is why this "women's fight" should be everyone's fight.

Imagine how big (and effective) the wave would be if all beneficiaries participated. So if you are still standing on the shore, come join the effort. Because until women escape the mystique, the critique, and whatever comes after it, I promise, the waves will never stop flowing.

Anna Lau
Anna Lau
Read next: The State
Anna Lau

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