Kathleen Parker writes a lot of good stuff when it comes to gender, and here’s some more from her. This time she is marking the 50 year anniversary of Betty Friedan’s seminal work in feminism, The Feminine Mystique, and offering comment on it.
“Friedan did, indeed, identify and give shape to “the problem that has no name” — female angst born of privilege — but she also helped launch a flotilla of myths that have many women (and men) still scratching their heads.“
Angst born of privilege – Parker nails one of the core problems with a continuing problem in feminism, the clear sense that it is a lot of poor little rich girl whining. This drives a lot of MRHA contempt of feminism – lesser harms to women are equated to greater harms to men, or more often, raised to a higher level of urgency. This also drives the womanist criticisms of feminism – that it never gets much beyond being about privileged white women.
In fact this issue of white female privilege is such a hot button that it has generated two complimentary defense mechanisms. One is the gleeful acceptance of the concept of white privilege. This puts you in good standing with 70s Third Worldism, which is a very potent and normative conceptual matrix for many even now, so that’s good, but more than that you get to demonstrate that you acknowledge your guilt, that you have a social conscience, that you are moral and high-minded person, so that you can go back to ignoring your privilege. The other is blank denial that there can be any kind of female privilege. “There is male priivlege and saying female privilege would deny that!” (How so?) “What you are calling female privilege is really just benevolent sexism ! (Well it damned sure is benevolent to women and it damned sure is sexist towards men, so, yeah maybe so…….. oh, that’s not what you meant?)
And by the way, however problematic you may find the dominance of privileged white woemn in feminism, it was probably necesary. It’s always the people with privilege who have the resources to start these things. I can’t think of one social revolution that wasn’t dominated by privielged people, quite often women, for good or ill. The Temperance Movement was a completely female-dominated movement, with the men, elected oficials too, serving the demands of the women. Okay, so that ended in disaster… The Abolition Movement? That started with a privileged women writing a novel and was settled with men dying at Gettysburg. Anyway, anyway, my point stands – elites have an indispensable role to play.
Parker quotes Friedan:
“It simply wasn’t fair that men had fulfilling lives, intellectually and monetarily, while women were expected to find satisfaction in the latest invention aimed at whiter collars and cleaner toilet bowls.”
This kind of delusion about the reality of men’s work lives comes out of two kinds of privilege. The first kind is a system that so insulates women like Friedan from the economic realities of life and the harsh realities of the work world outside the home that it can even look like men “had fulfilling lives, intellectually and monetarily,”. The second form is more insidious. It is the gendered belief that of course women understand men and our lives in ways that men can never understand women and theirs – that of course women understand everything little thing about men and our lives.. Mother knows best and knows all – she has eyes in the back of her head after all. Men are simple creatures, women are complex and mysterious. Feminine Mystique indeed.
Yes, Friedan was working outside the home at the time – it doesn’t count. She wasn’t being expected to be the sole support of a family off that job. Not the same thing at all. She had that privilege, and it blinded her.
And when the revolution began to bear fruit in the 70’s and 80s and women began to enter the corporate world, the bill for of this deluded view of men’s work life came due – women ran into the same buzz saw that men always had, but without the childhood years of soul-crushing hardening that boys go through to get there. They didn’t have the “unfair advantage” of a dehumanizing socialization process that would have prepared them for the trials ahead. And the reaction for a lot of women – most, really – was to buckle down and adapt fast. But for some, and for all the theorists, the reaction was 180 degrees out from that. The answer was that this was all sexism! Women were being singled out for mistreatment . This was raw sexism!
This analysis made as much sense at applying it to the experience of someone who tries to cross a muddy corral in high heels instead of cowboy boots and attributes her inability to walk to sexism, because it’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair that she should have to adopt male modes of dress to walk through mud. Now in this particular example, the most harm done is that this kind of whining just causes the women standing around in cowboy boots too the sneer at the complainer’s East Coast accent or whatever.
But in the corporate world the reaction was different. In the corporate world, with all that evil, male competition we started to hear reviled so much about this time, women’s complaints were seized on as one more weapon to beat down low-status males. Apexuality in the service of feminism! And frankly if you look at the history of feminism – at the suffrage movement, at sexual harassment policy, at domestic violence law, at all the rest of feminist gains in law and public policy – this is the pattern you see.
Well not all women were so uniformed:
“Doubtless I would have been a member of the stampede had I been of age, but as it happens, I was being raised by a widower and assumed that all men delighted in carpooling and cooking. How little I knew of the toils of sad, wealthy women.”
Parker also homes in on Friedan’s inability, and that of the movement at large, so be more than an in-group defined by and focused on one set of concerns to the exclusion of anything else, except for lip service (see also men and WOCs), all while claiming to be offering the world the heuristic for analyzing all things gender:
“Nevertheless, I was marinating in a culture that was shifting, and I was surely absorbing the zeitgeist. But members of my generation also were becoming unwitting hostages to myths that few were brave enough to challenge. My own skepticism came to full fruition the moment I became a mother.”
Unlike Friedan, I wasn’t tethered to home but to a job. Rather than resenting the prospect of staying home with a baby, I was stricken by the realization that I couldn’t. The “strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning,” words Friedan used to describe thwarted ambition, was for me the sense of having abandoned my son. “
This narcissistic tunnel-vision dogged 2nd Wave feminism enough that it triggered 3rd Wave feminism, (Which then went ahead to fail to overcome it, but that too is for another day.) In this instance it went further, it went as far as the old “your life is grist for my ideology” shredder. Women who wanted feminism to be about freedom found that some freedoms were more equal than others, found themselves reviled as traitors to women everywhere. It was called the Mommy Wars.
Parker just loves a Parthian shot, too:
“In a twist to delight the Fates, Friedan’s ultimate legacy may well be a stay-at-home dad, grateful for the latest appliance that liberates him to carpool and make organic treats — squealing oui, oui, oui! all the way home.”
It’s an ill wind that blows no good, I guess.
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