This month I decided that after over 10 years of waxing lyrical about feminism, it was about time I read some theory; and so I bought a copy of Betty Friedan’s seminal tome, The Feminine Mystique, which was published 50 years ago this week.
‘Feminine mystique’ is the name Friedan coined for the impossibly perfect vision of the 1960s American woman: domestic goddess, devoted mother, available lover, faithful wife. The book angrily charts the lie that Friedan and her contemporaries were sold — that the battle for gender equality had been won, and all that remained was for women to enjoy the freedom of housewifery; the only thing that could ever fulfil them. Friedan repeatedly alludes to “the problem without a name”, the term she uses for the malaise felt by the women experiencing this oppression and being told it was happiness.
To my mind, the most amazing and miserable aspect of The Feminine Mystique is how relevant it still is. Women of my generation are still being sold lies to keep us obedient. We are told that we are valued, until we accuse a revered man of rape. We are told we are equal, and yet we still do most of the low-paid and unpaid work. We are told we are respected, and yet we are harassed in the street, objectified and ridiculed in the media, and haunted by words like nag, harridan and hysteric in our personal relationships. Like Friedan’s, our feminism is stifled by the belief that the battles have been won, and we are free to enjoy equality in all of its male-sanctioned glory.
There are the flickers of a revival of feminism: slut walks, projects about harassment and media objectification and feminist summer schools all suggest a new generation of women fighting the lies that they are being sold. But at the same time, we have the Sex and the City brand of feminism, as personified by a burgeoning movement in America calling itself “sexy feminists”, which reassures us that one can believe in gender equality and still pay hefty sums of money to have pubic hair ripped out at the root.
In my mind, if being sexy and funny are the two cornerstones of a new feminist movement, we may as well all pack up and go home now. At its core, feminism should be angry. A new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off. Sexy, funny feminism is inspired by the fear that feminism will never get anywhere unless it is likeable. Feminism that prioritises popularity over its own integrity will necessarily fail, as it is bound to reproduce the very problems it is fighting against.
Friedan changed feminism because she wrote a book that spoke to women’s hearts and souls, and wasn’t afraid of offending men in the process. An 82-year-old woman wrote in the New York Times this week that The Feminine Mystique had made her realise that she was “not a freak” for feeling a sense of malaise. Women today are becoming angry at being made to feel like freaks for feeling malaise at being cat-called, objectified and shamed. The goal of feminists must be to harness that anger to create something better, not stifle it with a feminism which pleases everybody but changes nothing.