How to Pick a Lover

Posts tagged ‘Betty Friedan’

Being Married Can Be Boring Too

Love has gone and left me . . . and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse,
And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
There’s this little street and this little house.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay

Some women, especially middle-class women who don’t work outside the home, are condemned day after day to lives of the most exquisite boredom. Betty Friedan, in her now classic book The Feminine Mystique, described them as having “the problem that has no name.”

Not true. It does have a name, and the name is boredom.

Consider a young woman who hitches her wagon to a promising young executive’s star. After a few years of marriage, she finds that she spends all day in the company of preliterate children, an always-full dishwasher, and an erratic washing machine. She walks through the repetitive, demanding, but unchallenging routine subject to the demands of a preschool family. It is not that she does not love her children or that she finds them uninteresting, but they are not interesting enough. And worst of all, one day is just like the next.

Cover of "The Women's Room"

Cover of The Women’s Room

The German poet Goethe is quoted as saying, “A man can stand almost anything except a succession of ordinary days.” The ordinary days of a young suburban housewife-mother have been described eloquently in the first part of The Women’s Room. “Bore”—“ing”—two words. The only light, the only spark to be anticipated, is the nightly return of the husband, trailing clouds of glory from the real world where conversations are literate, and decisions are important, and changes are possible.

A young husband is often not very interested in his young wife and her alien domestic world although, in an abstract way, he is at least willing to support her in dollar terms. He’s preoccupied with his own world, the masculine world of commerce, which defines his sense of self-worth and also pays the mortgage. Although an understandable and perhaps even laudatory preoccupation, it is not of great comfort to the woman who is doing two loads of laundry a day and is understandably preoccupied with soap and, by trivial extension, with soap operas as well.

Soap operas may be a satisfactory source of vicarious experience for the retired pensioner of seventy, but they are paltry fare for the young woman of twenty-five, who sees in them a reaffirmation of her own deep suspicion that life is passing her by and passing quickly at that. She might resolve this dilemma in a number of ways. Have another baby who, in being only a baby, will really need her in ways her four-year-old already doesn’t. Go back to school and study to become an architect. Get a job, if she can imagine being a receptionist and can arrange day care, or have an affair.

The mystique of an affair is that, in part, it is immediate. She is already qualified; her body already knows what to do. And with her husband’s tired and indifferent response, she has both motivation and justification, not to mention her speculations about his business trips and late nights at the office.

The young mother, and not so young mother, is often bored. She needs a lover to show her that she is still an attractive woman, to give her a reason to shave her legs, to make her listen for the ringing phone. Someone to hurry through the housework for, so she can be free by two o’clock. A lover fills up the time, the space, the emptiness. A lover, if he is a lover at all, at least promises to be interesting.

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“Please Sir, I Want More”: The Desire For Erotic Fulfillment

Is that all there is? If that’s all there is,
my friend, then let’s start dancing, let’s
break out the booze, if that’s all there is.
—Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is”

In the classic scene from Dickens’s masterpiece Oliver Twist, Oliver is emboldened by hunger and proclaims to the headmaster, “Please, sir, I want more!” Women, too, are emboldened by hunger; and they also feel that they want more. Unfortunately, their hunger is more diffuse than hunger for gruel, and many are not exactly sure what it is they want more of.

Until several generations ago, the lives of most women were quite circumscribed. Their options were limited and most of the outcomes of their lives were determined by the choice of a husband, a choice which, as often as not, was practically made for them. The expectations of mother, father, and husband were reinforced by the dictates of religion and by well-established custom.

While such women may or may not have been happy with their restricted horizons, most of them seem to have been resigned to it. They had minimal aspirations; and when they did aspire to life beyond the conventional one, they received little, if any, support. There were early feminists and later suffragettes, but most women lived quietly within the confines of Kinder, Kirche, Kūche—children, church, kitchen.

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first wave of feminism, which brought the vote and other legal reforms, saw the beginning of women working for pay outside the home. The second wave, which washed over the country in the 1960s, created a generation of women who not only had the Pill but were led to expect that their lives would blossom beyond the confines of “the feminine mystique.” Betty Friedan posited that prior to the 1960s, an idealized image of femininity, which she called the feminine mystique, permeated society. According to Friedan, this ideal image served to confine most women to the narrow roles of housewife and mother, limiting their ability to realize their full human potential and ultimately causing them to feel unfulfilled and unhappy. It was “the problem that has no name,” as women did not recognize “the feminine mystique” as the source of their discontent.

While Friedan was ahead of her time, she was more eloquent in describing “the problem that has no name” than prescribing what to do about it. Many young women, and some not so young ones, were left with a pervasive but vague sense of discontent. They did not want to be confined only to Kinder, Kirche, Kūche; but neither were they quite self-confident enough to pay their own bills and make their own way for the next forty years, let alone dream of being astronauts. They wanted to be “equal.” However, they thought more in terms of equal opportunities than they did of equal responsibilities. As we enter into the 21st century, there is a growing number of women who seek lovers simply for their own personal erotic fulfillment, independent of the bonds of marriage and the financial support it may provide. Arguably, these women represents the front line of the third wave of the feminist
movement.

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