A Woman’s Worth

Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. I read it in college, not understanding a bit, but obediently spouting back the theory to my feminist professor.   Now, I’ve read it more seriously, and I’m fascinated.  This book is a gem.  Even though it is said to have ushered in second wave feminism and we’re here riding the 44th wave, it is still so applicable.  I think people would pay a lot less attention to disputes over how women should live their lives if everyone attempted to understand what Friedan was trying to say.

Its taken me over a month to read this deliciously dense book.  So I thought I’d save you all some time, and offer a little overview of my main takeaways.

It is easy to see the concrete details that trap the suburban housewife, the continual demands on her time.  But the chains that bind her in her trap are chains in her own mind and spirit.  They are chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices.  They are not easily seen and not easily shaken off (77).

In the 1960s, women were expected to be fulfilled by having babies, a family, and a well-kept house.  Society told females that the greatest good was to nurture, and in the decades following the World Wars, this makes sense.  People ached for the comforts of home; Women, as the sex to bear children, felt obligated to fulfill real or imagined ideals.

I do not study psychology, but I believe this desire to meet expectations was fueled by two fires: the need to be validated, and the biological urge to procreate.  If instead women were encouraged to seek a career (and validated once this was achieved), perhaps we wouldn’t have an entire generation called Baby Boomers.  Today, over four decades since Friedan exposed women’s great dissatisfaction with their role, I see that society still has not moved on from this obsession that women be nurturers.

I’m not complaining though, not now, not at age 28.  Maybe when I’m 48, and past my child bearing years, I’ll feel differently.  Friedan was 42 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique.  When I first started telling people I was expecting, one menopausal woman tried to relate with me:  “Don’t you just feel so special?”  As usual, I did not get it at the time.  I was in the throes of misery most days, too busy to feel anything but self-pity.  But I understand now.  With the entire world speculating about when Princess Catherine will produce an heir, how can we young women not feel a little bit of self-satisfaction that we share this same life?  Today we no longer have a feminine mystique, but a pregnancy mystique.

One of the differences between 1963 and 2012, is that today I do not believe the only way to continue to find meaning in my life is to have more children.  Now it is my choice what I want to do–I mean, it was a choice for women in 1963, but not a socially accepted one to choose career over motherhood, or ever career and motherhood.  I’m happy we had a baby last year.  Now the hormonal drive that used to clutter my thoughts is quieter.  I can focus on my career, on my marriage, and fittingly–my family.  I know I may want to have another baby someday, but the urgency isn’t there quite like it used to be.  I unexpectedly got pregnant in early 2011, which ended in a miscarriage.  Until then, the ability for my body to conceive was something I was vaguely aware of, but with ten years of preventing pregnancy under my belt, it took some time to change my mindset to the other direction.

Then there was this hope that came from knowing I was pregnant–a previously mysterious mystique that I was suddenly privy to.  But after three weeks it unraveled into a despair from learning the fetus was not going to survive.  This fostered in us a baby exigency.  If I lived in 1963, after my body healed from the trauma of a miscarriage or childbirth, I probably would be left to focus on having more children.  In 2012, the option to make one’s identity motherhood exists for many of us, but for complicated and various reasons, we may not accept this role.

According to this tool on Salary.com, should a stay-at-home mom actually earn cash, she’d get $112,962 per year.  Curiously enough, if a mother works out of the home, her median salary is $66,979. Why is there such a huge gap between the two?

I do not like these infographics: one depicts how “stay-at-home moms juggle 94.7 hours of work” each week; the other, that “working moms juggle 57.9 additional hours of work at home.”  They completely upend the important work Friedan established.  And, I’m confused.  What are “working moms” doing with those additional 36.8 hours each week?  I can think of a zillion things I would like to be doing, but in reality, I’m working too.  Thankfully, I enjoy my work a great deal, and I’m not here trying to add to the raging Mommy Wars going on in the media, but to draw our attention back to a wonderful woman who made an important point decades ago–that women, despite a biological destiny to produce children, have choices.

Looking back at the college professor who first introduced me to The Feminine Mystique, I’m not sure if I should be agitated that she expected me–a young, naive teenager–to understand this book, if I should feel embarrassed that I so obviously missed the point, or if I should be proud that she thought me capable of understanding (and perpetuating!) this fundamental role shift the female gender had so recently wrought.

An entry level attorney makes over $90k.  A professor of accounting at Suffolk University makes about $119k.  A nurse practitioner should make around $100k.  A librarian? $63k.  It seems disrespectful to say that a stay-at-home mother is more valuable than a woman working outside the home.  I think Betty Friedan, who died in 2006, would be saddened that a woman’s worth is still valued higher when she is her own domestic worker.

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