Where were you when the `Mystique' was shattered?

TWENTY-FIVE years ago next month, a 42-year-old housewife and mother of three in Rockland County, N.Y., shook American social structures to the core with a best seller that launched the modern women's movement. Contending that deeply entrenched attitudes and social barriers imprisoned educated women in a ``housewife trap,'' Betty Friedan called for expanded career opportunities and equality with men. So powerful was her message that many women still chart the 1960s by two reference points: where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot, and where they were when they read ``The Feminine Mystique.''

Ms. Friedan appreciates how long a 25 years it has been when she hears college students tell her with youthful enthusiasm, ``Oh, we've studied you in our history books!''

Friedan hardly resembles a figure embalmed in a history text. Sitting in the book-lined living room of her 40th-floor apartment overlooking Central Park, she is dressed in a green turtleneck, black slacks, and white Nikes. Modern art hangs on salmon-colored walls, and winter sunlight bounces off a carved settee upholstered in a splashy red-and-purple print.

But more and more these days, Friedan feels like her own historian. She has just left for Los Angeles to serve as a visiting distinguished professor at the University of Southern California, where, on Feb. 9, she will be the guest of honor at a gala celebrating the silver anniversary of her now-classic volume.

At this personal point for looking ahead and looking back, how does Friedan see what she calls ``the adventure of my own life'' relating to ``the wonderful adventure of the women's movement itself, this passionate journey that has changed possibilities for women''?

Her rhetoric gives away Friedan as an incorrigible optimist. How could she have written ``The Feminine Mystique'' in the first place without a surplus of hope? But in an interview full of the retrospection, introspection, and prophecy appropriate to an anniversary, she sounded an uncharacteristically sober note before letting her natural enthusiasm take over.

Friedan worries about ``a new feminine mystique in the air, which could get much worse if the stock market crash and the tremors we are experiencing are followed by recession and serious unemployment. If there is going to be any kind of a recession, some kind of uncertainty, women make a good scapegoat, because every family has one.''

Already she finds troubling evidence of that new mystique. The forms may vary, but the implied message remains the same: ``Give up your feminist dreams. They were wrong. Go home again.''

Friedan takes two new movies as her text. In ``Fatal Attraction,'' a ``sexually aggressive and crazy'' career woman is portrayed as ``pure evil, pure menace - to the family, to the man who dallies with her. She is finally killed by the sweet housewife, with the audience screaming, `Get her, get her.' It's a very disturbing movie.'' And in ``Baby Boom,'' a career woman leaves her job in New York and ``goes off into the bucolic wilderness to raise a child.''

With the new mystique, even fashion becomes a subtle trap. ``There's no way you can wear skirts as short as they're showing for spring and do anything serious,'' Friedan says. ``The 12-inch skirt and the 7-inch heels - I say, watch it, watch it. There's something ominous here. I think some of the new fashions are expressing somewhat of a backlash against women.''

In the years since ``The Feminine Mystique'' was published, Friedan has watched her perspectives lengthen and broaden. Disturbed that feminism was being perceived as ``a battle of women against women,'' and ``a battle against the family or motherhood,'' she wrote ``The Second Stage'' in 1981, outlining the need for ``new institutions'' such as child care and parental leave.

The mother of feminism is now a grandmother. One son, Jonathan, an engineer in Philadelphia, is the father of two young sons. Another son, Daniel, is a theoretical physicist at the University of Chicago. Friedan's daughter, Emily, who was only 6 when ``The Feminine Mystique'' was published, is now a pediatrician in public health in Buffalo, N.Y.

Time indeed passes. This year Friedan is completing a third book, ``The Fountain of Age,'' dealing with ``the pernicious denial and mystique of age.''

As senior stateswoman of feminism, she views all that's happened in the last 25 years and says, ``One has to feel quite wonderful about it. Change is really beginning to be visible.''

Women, she notes, now constitute 40 percent of students in law schools and medical schools. Instead of ``just cooking the church supper,'' they are serving as Protestant ministers and as rabbis, and ``theology based on women's experience as well as men's is a much more rich and vital theology,'' she says.

On the home front she observes ``a rather delicious diversity of new kinds of families. Women and men want to share the parenting now. ... There is new trial and error as younger and not-so-young women and men in various stages of partnership or marriage work out patterns that at least have a goal of equality.''

But still the historian in Friedan, and the activist who has been part of history, worries that the history of feminism is already being forgotten. The backlash - the feminine mystique in reverse - may go unnoticed by young women who take for granted hard-won entitlements they have inherited. So in addition to her practical agenda - parental leave and child care legislation now before Congress, job flexibility, benefits and pensions for part-time workers - Friedan wants ``a new wave of consciousness-raising.''

When she tries to close the gap and explain the ``clear and present danger'' to a generation not even born when ``The Feminine Mystique'' was published, she tells the story of the girdle.

She begins by asking the women in her college audiences, ``How many of you have ever worn a girdle?''

``They laugh,'' she reports. ``So then I say, `Well, it used to be, not so long ago, when I was your age, or your mothers were your age, that every woman from about the age of 12 to 92, who left her house in the morning, encased her flesh in rigid plastic casing. She wasn't supposed to notice that the girdle made it difficult for her to breathe or move. She didn't even ask why she wore it. But did it really make her more attractive to men?'

``I ask them, `How can you know what it was like to wear a girdle, when you've never worn anything under your blue jeans except a bikini brief? And how can I expect you to know what it felt like when being a woman meant you wore a girdle over your mind, your eyes, your mouth, your heart, your feelings, your sexuality, as well as the girdle on your belly?

```Life is not simple, and you're not always going to be happy. But it's so much better to live, to move and walk and talk and breathe and feel, without that girdle on. You would never put it on again if you know what it felt like. But they are trying to put you back in that girdle.'''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Where were you when the `Mystique' was shattered?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today