It’s been 50 years since Betty Friedan released "The Feminine Mystique" and set out to address what she identified as widespread unhappiness" among women. Her solution: dismantle the "feminine mystique" — the idea that women were fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers — and instead call women into the "exciting" world of paid work with the "able, ambitious" men who "kept on growing." More radical voices built on Friedan’s reference to the home as a "comfortable concentration camp" with slogans like, "Renounce your martyrdom. Become a liberated mother — a woman, not a mom."
In some ways, Friedan’s arguments were a predictable response to unintended changes to domestic life brought by industrialization. Where mothers and fathers had once worked side by side on farms to build their household economy, industrialization meant women took on the lion’s share of the work at home. Once a producer, a woman now became chiefly a consumer — isolated and burdened by work that had once been shared. An unwrittem code of conduct inflexibly defined her role, limited her possibilities and reinforced the division between men and women in household labor.
Under these altered conditions, some began to identify care-giving with oppression, and many viewed child-rearing as a liability — expensive, inconvenient and an encroachment on personal fulfillment. Seeing the world through these lenses, fairness seemed to demand her liberation from such work and the family responsibilities associated with it. The promise was that happiness would follow.
The dramatic changes women have experienced in the past 50 years, however, have not produced greater reported happiness. In an almost tragic paradox, it is true that by many objective measures, including economic independence, educational attainment, control over fertility, and more freedom from domestic drudgery, there have been dramatic improvements for women. But paradoxically during that same period, there has been a significant decline in reported happiness among women across all educational levels, age groups, marital categories and employment statuses.
It is impossible to definitively explain this decrease in women’s happiness. Nonetheless, a brief look at the data regarding the challenges women face today suggests, ironically, that women face significant challenges. Most of these contemporary challenges may stem from the dismantling of the institutions of marriage and family, once identified as "the enemy" of opportunities and happiness.
The past 50 years have brought less likelihood of marriage, more divorce, dramatic increases in poverty for female-headed households, and greater likelihood of unstable and abusive couple relationships (including cohabitation). At the same time, there have been dramatic increases in the number of women bearing children outside of the stability and support of marriage.
All this has meant greater dependence on women’s paid work to provide essential family income. As a result, the majority of women are likely to be working far more hours than they would like to be.
There is no question that the traditional unhealthy patterns of family life that inflexibly defined women’s roles restricted opportunities and established a rigid division between men and women in household labor needed to change.
But sadly, rather than challenging the attitudes that had devalued women, the "new woman" advocated for by the kind of feminists who followed Friedan looked more like the "old man" they had criticized.
In the words of Jean Elshtain, "Behold the new woman as the old man!" By crossing the line into contempt for family life, many feminist ideas that had intended to elevate women became self-defeating for they required that women reject and devalue the institutions of marriage and motherhood. The result has not led to better outcomes and satisfaction for women.
Betty Friedan argued that women who focused on marriage and family were living only a "half life." But dismantling the bonds of marriage and family life has not been the answer to increasing freedom and happiness among women. Surely one of the great lessons of the past 50 years is that stability and happiness in family life is a foundation for thriving in all other aspects of life.
Indeed, strength in the bonds of healthy marriage, family life and care-giving appears to be the force that enables women (and men and children) to fly, for it is these relationships that give meaning to life itself.
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