Reading Betty Friedan After the Fall of Roe
The problem no longer has no name, and yet we refuse to solve it
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about personhood and politics written by a journalist (me), living in Iowa. Subscriptions make this work possible.
Nearly 60 years ago, Betty Friedan wrote about the “problem with no name.” It was as she defined it in her groundbreaking work, The Feminine Mystique, the malaise of a generation of women, women who had home and a family and every modern convenience but who still felt desperately unfulfilled.
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question- “Is this all?”
Friedan was writing about the post–World War II generation of women. Women who’d seen their mothers liberated by suffrage but who found their own lives trapped. Women found themselves pushed out of jobs after soldiers came home from war. Friedan wrote, “The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar.”
During the war, America had offered paid childcare. But the program ended to force women out of their jobs to make room for the men. Military facilities that made food supplies for soldiers now marketed their cake mixes and instant mashed potatoes to the housewife as a way to make modern housewifery more appealing. Laura Shapiro in her essay “Betty Crocker and the Woman in the Kitchen” explains that one of the first Betty Crockers, Marjorie Husted, built the home service department at General Mills. Husted explained in a speech to the marketing copywriters in 1948 that the modern housewife was “uncertain – anxious – insecure.”
But why? Developments in medicine had led to a decrease in childhood and maternal mortality. Smallpox and polio were gone. Dishwashers and washing machines made the job of a housewife easier, and yet. And yet still, in 1963, when Betty Friedan wrote about the problem with confining a woman’s life to a house and children, when she identified so specifically the malaise of waxing floors and perfectly lipsticked smiles, there was a revolution.
I read Friedan’s book for the first time last November. I had never taken a feminist history class. My major was English literature and Russian history and language. I was too busy reading Dostoevsky to be bothered with Friedan. Plus, it seemed to me as a college student in the early 2000s that women were equal. We had done it. The irony that I had grown up in a deeply religious culture and had to fight my parents to go to college was completely lost on me. That was an individual problem. Societally, we had moved on; no one really bought into the regressive tropes of cultural and religious conservatism. I simply had to catch up.
I can hear the sad trombone sound playing as you read that last paragraph. How wrong I was. But how could anyone mired in their own struggle lift their head up and see the entire system?
Last November as I read Friedan, it felt so impossibly relevant to that moment. And every day since the Dobbs decision, her work has continued to feel relevant. Yes, Friedan spent a lot of time fighting with Freud and ignoring queer people, and she does this really weird thing where she blames over-involved mothers for making the armed forces less manly. But there in the tangle of her arguments is a problem, named, and held up for everyone to see. The problem is housewives exist to purchase items. Housewives prop up the economy. There is no financial incentive to free women. Women have to free themselves.
Writing in her newsletter All in Her Head, Jessica Valenti identifies a movement on TikTok that glorifies the 1950s housewife. I’ve noticed it too. Funny videos that show a woman hacking the system by being a stay-at-home mom with nothing to do but drink coffee and go to Target with their impossibly adorable baby. “Why work a job when I can be a mother?” And maybe it’s not necessarily a new trend. For as long as women have been fighting for freedom, there have been other women clinging to the patriarchy, because that’s where they’ve found power and status.
The resurgence of the 50s era housewife nostalgia makes sense to me. In the beginning of the pandemic, when I saw the number of women dropping from the workforce, I remember thinking, “Don’t do it. Stay in your jobs!” But then I lost my job and I laid on the couch for a few months impossibly depressed, and I realized working for a company that doesn’t care about me isn’t any better than when I was a stay-at-home mom.
This 50s era, nostalgic version of womanhood is the trap we fall into right after the right to choose is pulled out from underneath us.
I met a friend of mine for coffee who told me about her company and how they’ve been treating her during the pandemic. They are trying to force her to travel for pointless corporate meetings, and she refuses. “Let them fire me,” she says. “I’m clearly disposable to them as they’ve made clear during the pandemic.” Another friend of mine has taken on additional work, uncompensated, in order to position herself for a promotion that her management dangled in front of her. A promotion she never got. Someone in the newsletter Discord talks about his wife being similarly taken advantage of. It’s not just anecdotal, a Harvard Business Review study shows that companies take advantage of qualified women, viewing them as “20% less likely to leave a firm,” but these women still face pay disparities and are less likely to be promoted. This has all gotten worse after a pandemic shut schools and forced women out of work. Also, jobs that have a higher percentage of female workers, nurses and teachers and childcare workers, have a huge retention problem. It makes sense. If you are going to have your labor exploited, it might as well happen in your home.
But just like a corporate solution didn’t fix the problem for Friedan’s generation, neither will fleeing the office to be a trad wife with chickens save ours. As Moira Donegan, one of my favorite working feminist thinkers and writers, reminds people, “Housewives have bosses too.” And in a society that makes it harder to divorce than marry, those bosses are harder to escape. Also, it’s worth pointing out, that if that version of womanhood was so satisfying, then why did a generation of women reject it in one of the largest most organized feminist movements in America?
The answer is, because being a housewife it’s not easy work and it’s not fulfilling. One thing that struck me as I read Friedan, is when she pointed out that women, when they had something to do other than their chores, actually got through their chores faster. I recalled how I had seemingly spent my entire past life as a housewife trapped in an endless cycle of chores. And how now, as a divorced woman, I was freer and my house was a lot cleaner. And not only because I had fewer chores or because I was cleaning up after one less person. But because I was no longer expected to perform gender in the same way. I was to put it simply, free like a husband. This is backed up by studies that show that despite the image of the harried single mother, single mothers actually had more free time and spent more time sleeping than their married counterparts.
While studies show that married couples are more financially stable, single women are more happy. Even divorced women, who are more likely to suffer economically from a divorce, are less likely to remarry. It’s almost as if the money and the stability aren’t enough. And that freedom is not something you can put a price on.
Valenti sums it up, writing, “In addition to being more economically, professionally and socially vulnerable, stay-at-home moms are also much more likely to be depressed and anxious. We live in a country that is notoriously unsupportive to mothers and families, with a culture that tells moms they should be grateful to have the ‘most important job in the world’ even though it doesn’t pay and doesn’t come with time off. Studies also show that women are more likely to initiate divorces than men, that women tend to be happier than men post-divorce, and that marriage benefits men more than it does women.”
I read Friedan last winter in big desperate gulps, sometimes listening to the audiobook on walks with my dog. It was depressing how relevant Friedan was then. And how more prescient she became after the Dobbs ruling.
Much like during the world in which Friedan published the Feminine Mystique, we are living in an era where women have fewer rights than our mothers did. America has the highest maternal mortality rate of the developed nations and we are forcing women into birth. Which will in turn force them into marriages and lives of limitation – and not limited because of children and a husband, but limited because they weren’t given a choice. This choiceless life can seem appealing. But the reality is it wasn’t fulfilling for the women of Friedan’s generation and definitely is not for us. Behind every trad wife influencer with chickens is a husband throwing his laundry on the floor and a housecleaner.
And much like how the image of Betty Crocker was offered as a salve to a generation of trapped women, so are these TikTok trad wives offering us a fiction. Author Lydia Keisling pointed out, “If being a housewife fulfilled all these women they wouldn't be bringing Spielberg-level production values to TikTok is the thing.”
This 50s era version of womanhood is the trap we fall into right after the right to choose is pulled out from underneath us.