Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan shook up North America's social landscape with her controversial bestseller The Feminine Mystique. The American journalist and feminist wrote about "the problem that has no name" -- the fact that many middle-class housewives who were told they should be happy were, in fact, deeply, desperately, silently unhappy. (Think of Betty Draper sitting at the kitchen table and staring into space.)
To mark the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, commentators have been discussing what's changed and what's remained the same since its publication. Often the talk gets dirty -- literally. Perhaps the book's most intriguing, intractable ongoing issue is housework.
I first came across The Feminine Mystique as an earnest young university student. As Friedan outlined the modern myth of "the happy housewife heroine," I remember feeling indignant, even outraged, but only in an abstract kind of way. The problems of a post-war housewife, stultifying in an immaculate Colonial house in the suburbs, seemed distant. I couldn't imagine that I would ever be hoodwinked into caring about the shininess of my kitchen floor.
Fast-forward a few decades and I'm happy to report that my self-worth is not bound up with the state of my kitchen floor (which is good, because the linoleum actually predates Friedan's 1963 book). On the other hand, the floor still needs the occasional sweep. There's no getting away from that.
Friedan's iconic housewife has all but disappeared. (These days the word is almost always used half-ironically, as with those ghastly, screaming, table-tipping women of reality TV. I mean, when is the last time a "Real Housewife" of New Jersey or Beverly Hills cleaned a toilet?) But housework persists, being the kind of implacable, inevitable issue that can give death and taxes a run for their money. Laundry still needs to be folded. Dinner still needs to be made.
What's changed is how these things get done. The most positive outcome is that men and women share housework more equally. But with both men and women working outside the home, the chores tend to pile up. As many commentators have pointed out, since Friedan's time, the problem has gone from "Is that all there is?" to "It's all too much."
Friedan looked at suburbia and saw boredom, lassitude and long, empty afternoons. These days, the problem of too many unfilled hours seems inconceivable to most women. Busy, burdened and fretting about "work-life balance," most of us would kill for a long, empty afternoon or two. And while Friedan's desperate housewives might have dreamed about a job in the city, women who work full-time outside the home often fantasize about the time to bake pies or garden or just cross off errands on that endless to-do list.
In our overstressed and overscheduled lives, domesticity often takes on the lure of the exotic. It's not that we're yearning for the dull general run of housewifery -- dusting, vacuuming or, God forbid, cleaning grout -- but there is a fetishized passion for specialized domestic tasks like soap-making, putting up jam and organizing things in matching baskets.
And in some unexpected and odd ways, our current standards of domesticity are more punishing than those set for Friedan's housewives. The push for bourgeois conformity has been replaced by the pull of hipster cool, and Better Homes & Gardens has been trumped by Dwell magazine. While the 1960s suburban living room did involve a certain amount of pillow-plumping, you could basically bring in a tufted sofa and a couple of matching end tables and call it a day. Now our interiors are supposed to be authentic and expressive, carefully considered but still spontaneous. We need to tablescape our entry-way consoles and curate our mantelpieces and style our bookshelves. It's exhausting, really.
The pressures that Friedan identified -- exerted through the mass media, advertising and consumer culture -- haven't been overcome. They've simply moved into other areas. Even though Friedan helped to dismantle the old idea of the perfect housewife with the perfect house, it seems clear that new mystiques have popped up to take its place. Women are no longer expected to be like June Cleaver, wearing pearls while vacuuming. Now they're expected be like Gwyneth Paltrow, looking hot while doing the school run. And, again, baking Bundt cakes was easy compared with that whole "yummy mummy" thing.
One last comment on Friedan's argument -- and one I wouldn't have foreseen when reading it all those years ago -- is that housework is, maybe, not that bad. Friedan counselled women to leave what she viewed as the mindless routines of housework for challenging careers. But not all work inside the home is drudgery and not all work outside the home is thrilling. Seen as a be-all and end-all, housework can be oppressive. Seen as one of many things, housework has its charms. Its results are visible, immediate and satisfying, which is more than you can say for a lot of the paper-pushing and meeting-taking of paid work. The problem isn't so much that housework is degrading, but that our culture views it as degrading.
Reconsidering The Feminine Mystique 50 years on, the book feels like a flawed but necessary classic. Friedan sets out issues and ideas that women -- and men -- still struggle with. It's just that these days the struggle means recognizing that feminism is about choice, that feminism is about realizing that not all women face the same problems.
Maybe it's even about admitting that some of us love our Dyson vacuums.