Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin – Madison
When I think back on the Feminine Mystique, I am reminded of my favorite childhood television show, “Bewitched,” which featured a beleaguered housewife and witch, Samantha Stevens. As partner in her husband Darrin’s “two-person career,” holding a job of her own was out of the question. She was on call to whip up fabulous meals for Darrin’s boss and his clients at a moment’s notice – yet she wasn’t even supposed to use her superpowers to add a tasty dessert. She spent her days cooking, cleaning and helping her husband’s career, all the while proudly avoiding magical shortcuts. She had the requisite two children, but they mostly sat in the background, being supervised by a witchy relative or their babysitter, Esmeralda.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, a woman’s first priority, even if she had superpowers, was to catch and keep a man. She caught him by being beautiful; she kept him by being adoring and submissive. Whatever powers she might possess, be they brains, creativity, or levitation, had to be suppressed as an unforgiveable threat to the male ego. Keeping a happy marriage was her primary aim; a clean house came second; and well-adjusted children, third.
Today women’s work outside of the home is often necessary and desirable. But we are a long way from the gender equity Friedan advocated. A new “Motherhood Mystique” has replaced the Feminine Mystique, and that motherhood mystique has reversed the priorities of its predecessor. Where the marital relationship was the core of the family unit in the 1950s and 1960s, today the mother-child bond is primary. Not only must the middle-class mother ensure her child gets into the right schools and has all the right extra-curricular activities, she must remain that child’s primary attachment figure regardless of whether she works outside the home or not. Her priorities are children, career, spouse and household, in that order. That does not spell liberation.
The ideology undergirding the postwar “feminine mystique” was the Freudian psychoanalytic construct of “normal” femininity, with its emphasis on female passivity. Psychiatrists ratcheted up women’s guilt by warning that if they did not put their husband’s needs first they would ruin him as a breadwinner, undermine his masculinity, and make themselves neurotic. Today many developmental psychologists ratchet up women’s guilt by wrongly claiming that if they work outside the home or put their children in day care between the supposedly magical years of one and three their children will end up with attachment disorders or behavioral problems. Yet research shows that the quality of childcare, both by mothers and others, matters more than who provides care.
Today’s working moms need not feel guilty. They actually spend more time interacting with their children than their mid-twentieth century stay-at-home counterparts. Galinsky’s interview-based research for Ask the Children: The Breakthrough Study that Reveals How to Succeed at Work and Parenting shows that today’s children that are happiest when their mothers feel less stressed and guilty, not when their mothers spent more time with them. Here, too working mothers score high marks, experiencing greater well-being better health, and fewer episodes of depression than contemporary at-home moms.
Friedan argued that the feminine mystique put inordinate pressure on marriage to fulfill women’s emotional and intellectual lives, undermining marital happiness. Today, the motherhood mystique similarly overburdens parent-child relationships and expectations. Rather than enjoy the time freed up by the presence of childcare providers, working mothers too often feel threatened by providers’ strong bonds with children. Mothers consequently cut back on time in community engagement, time with friends, time with their husbands, and time for themselves. The motherhood mystique also creates guilt and anxiety within mothers and “mompetitions” between them.
Ultimately, the “motherhood mystique” keeps so focused on our private problems that we lack the energy to push for public solutions that would benefit all: family-friendly workplaces, paid family leave, and funding for excellent childcare and pre-school. Perhaps we could ask Samantha to twitch her nose.