I almost fell prey to schizophrenia along the way of reading Betty Friedan's classic, The Feminine Mystique, which was a feminist manifesto for the American second wave. There are at least three parallel parts of me simultaneously participating in this readership.
The middle-class, well-educated me surely finds it tempting to see this volume as a vivid depiction of my life. It taps so deeply into the personal experiences I encountered and endured every single day, as well as my internal struggles and confusion. The problem with no name, or the problem of depression, emptiness, purposeless, and infantilization of women with "housewife" as their sole glorified occupation perpectuated by the pervasive Feminine Mystique, points directly to my "mistaken choice" between being a normal girl who doesn't bother getting too serious about her career in order to enhance her popularity among boys, and who walk her painful way to answer the question of "who am I" through dedicating to academy. Unconsciously, I have grown from a tomboy actively participate in all male-dominated spheres to a pseudo-lady who is deeply destructed in heart but seems pretty decent from the outside. And I sometimes secretly apply the outdated Freudian analysis to myself and take out the penis envy. The compulsive preoccupation with relationship problems whenever I am with someone, the powerlessness when I think about developing a career that I have dreamt about since childhood, the fear that I would end up being a cat lady if I persist in academia, and finally, the self-help approach to forcing myself to be independent and competent. All these now show that I am no more than a product of this liberal feminist orthodox who finds circular thoughts and deadlocks inescapable at the end.
Why circular thought? Why deadlock? Because they are self-focus and even worse, becoming accomplices of the enemy. Here comes the more critical part of myself, who attempts to drag the liberal feminist inside of me out and interrogate her. Everyone is unhappy, so does Betty say, and this is the tragedy of the feminine mystique. Men are expected to be masculine, boys and girls's personalities are absorbed by their mothers, and the society should free everyone from this non-human situation. But why frame the problem as such? Why focus on women's problems while pretending to defend other people's welfare as well? Women are not fully human, but so does everyone else. And after all, isn't it the very definition of full human that cause the problem, not the other way around? She talks about free-choice and self-empowerment, and then suddenly turns to a national level suggesting that female autonomy is limited. This is seemingly not mutually exclusive, for women could help themselves as well as change the system. But the problem is, the boudary is never clear, and it is increasingly unclear as to how to be a women in contemporary scenario, whereas feminist agenda is twisted and capitalized on by neoliberalism for "greater" economic goods, compensated for other "less trivial" and "more urgent" agendas like EU integration, and being opposed on the basis of the exclusive nature of identity politics. Besides, as Betty repetitively criticizing "the anatomy is the destiny", isn't she continuing the phallocentrism intrenched in our culture as Luce Irigary attacks? Sincerely, I sometimes see no justification and optimism.
To be fair to her, these are all more or less addressed by Betty, especially in the epilogue, in which she has some constructive proposals and introduces her inspiring and touching movement. But still, the third part of me wonder if social movement organized as such with tons of liberal rhetoric would do justice to humanity. I refuse liberal feminism for two reasons. First, normatively speaking, it borns with middle-class privileges that prioritize higher human needs such as career choice and thirst for knowledge by arguing for a hierarchy of needs advocated by Maslow, thereby degrading the status of women from situations of socio-economic deprivation to that of animals'. While blaming the invisible norm of feminine mystique that traps white middle class housewives into concentration-camp-like homes, liberal feminists creat yet another form of categories that problematizes and negatively marks individuals from outside of their group. This is substantial harm-doing that should be the last thing expected in a social movement claiming for justice for women. Second, tactically speaking, the inevitable lack of unity caused by this discriminatory grouping would decrease sense of solidarity of the movement, and the society as a whole. They need to be saved, they need to be healed, they need to be educated. And "we", liberal feminists, though not fully representatives of all women, feel entitled to free them, to awaken them, and eventually, to make them human. But for those who still struggle to earn a living for the whole family and whose value of work are downgraded by your glorious self-realization truth, how exactly will you unite them for a hand-in-hand fight together?
So, here I am, reading with three perspectives and finding it almost impossible to reconcile them. The liberal feminist inside me is deeply touched by the affection and passion, by the empowerment yet to be established in myself. The critical theorist self doubts the existence of any meaningful reconsturction of the system via social movement, especially in the form of identity politics, and deplores for the scant possibility to be fully human in modernity, given the intertwined relationship of the subject, language, and the patriarchy (although I dare not claim to be familiar with critical and queer theory at all). The post-modern activist self considers intersectionality, social movement ethics, and more practical issues like tactics and strategies of identifying the main enemy and reinforcing a truly united front.
Therefore, seductive, influencial, and provocative as it is, I can give it no more than a three-stars. And most credits are given to Betty Friedan's courage to speak up and stand out on her own, which is something I should indeed look up to and follow. Actions speak louder than words, as histories always show.
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