Rereading Feminism

Second-wave feminism is old enough that scholars and critics can now write books about rereading the books -- the "classics" -- that animated the movement. (One wonders: What feminist texts from the early 21st century might thinkers be rereading in 2051?) In A Strange Stirring, the path-breaking family historian Stephanie Coontz assesses the importance of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's 1963 investigation of the painful discontent experienced daily by many American suburban housewives. Coontz argues that although The Feminine Mystique didn't single-handedly create second-wave feminism, it did have a singularly galvanizing effect on its readers. Friedan's book made women feel like they weren't alone, like they weren't going crazy, like there might be some future for them other than another night at the stove and more tranquilizers.

At the end of A Strange Stirring, Coontz notes how much has changed since 1963. Many of the ideas that Friedan labored to rebut -- such as "femininity can be destroyed by education" -- have largely disappeared from American culture. But Coontz also identifies new "mystiques" that hold back women. There's the working mom mystique, for example: Mothers, Coontz argues, continue to be discriminated against in the workplace. Employers persist in believing that mothers will be more distracted and less committed employees.

Tensions around motherhood and satisfying, paid employment animate another woman's recent rereading of The Feminine Mystique. When, as a Barnard College junior in the early 1990s, Stephanie Staal first read Friedan, she found The Feminine Mystique "a mildly interesting relic from another era." The young Staal, who planned to have a high-flying career as a journalist and perhaps novelist, simply could not relate to the 1960s housewives who felt imprisoned in their kitchens. By her early 30s, though, things looked different: Staal and her husband (a successful computer engineer) had moved from New York City to Annapolis, Maryland; Staal, working as a freelance writer and raising a daughter, began to find The Feminine Mystique more relevant. Indeed, rereading the book, Staal found that some of the women Friedan quoted sounded "too familiar for comfort." She identified more than she wished with the married mother of four who told Friedan, "I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and a putter-on of pants ... who am I?" To answer her own questions about identity, about integrating motherhood with other aspirations, Staal returned to her alma mater to sit in on the yearlong course she had taken as a junior, Feminist Texts. She recounts her reintroduction to those texts in Reading Women.

Circling both Reading Women and A Strange Stirring is the question of class privilege. It is easy to criticize Friedan for grounding her analysis in the experience of white, well-off women. While acknowledging that Friedan certainly focused on elite women, Coontz found that some working-class women also picked up the book, and felt "My God, she’s talking to me." Some of them went on to feminist labor organizing, and credited The Feminine Mystique with their politicization. Coontz also investigates the stated preference of some mid-20th century working-class women to stay at home. She finds that this preference was rooted not in a generic aversion to working outside the home, but rather in the women’s belief that there was no way they would be able to convince their husbands to do a shred of housework.

These issues loom large in Staal's Reading Women. Staal and her husband undergo their own politicization about housework -- their own realization that seemingly silly arguments about who does the dishes could "have serious consequences for a marriage" and were indeed often about “power and respect.” Staal, like Friedan, indisputably writes from a place of privilege -- it was a three-story Victorian to which she and her husband moved in Annapolis -- and her class comforts shape her engagement with feminist texts. At one point, she wonders why, indeed, she doesn’t just hire someone to help her out at home -- and then is faced with a discussion of that very topic in her Fem Texts class. The professor, insisting that being "nice" to one’s maid is not enough, calls for state regulation of paid domestic work. ("Not the Sweden comparison," mutters one exasperated student.) One of Staal's classmates, the daughter of a nanny, brings home the point that the maid a middle-class woman might hire is likely to be a working mother too -- only the maid's work is neither as remunerative nor as fulfilling as the work that the maid enabled her employer to pursue.

Yes, we have made great progress in tackling the problems of The Feminine Mystique -- both the problems Friedan named and the problems encapsulated in her own focus on the wives of white-collar men. And yes, those problems are with us still.

The Intersection of religion and gender is not of central interest to Coontz or Staal; when they do mention religion, it is generally to note the ways Christianity has sustained sexist social structures. Coontz, for example, quotes a woman who, after reading The Feminine Mystique, wrote to Friedan that although her husband "is very good as a husband," he "believes women are inferior by the will of God." The first text Staal read in Feminist Texts was Elaine Pagels' Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, which, in Staal's words, "traces traditional patterns of gender and sexuality back to ideas formed during the first four centuries of Christianity." (The professor guiding Staal’s reading blithely explains the popularity of Augustinian theology thus: "people would rather feel guilty than helpless ... Isn't it comforting to have a 'devil made me do it' excuse?")

Leora Tanenbaum's 2009 Taking Back God (recently released in paperback) offers a more sustained consideration of the intersections of religion and sexism in contemporary America. Tanenbaum, an observant Jew best known for her 2000 book Slut!, struggles personally with "women's status in Judaism." In Taking Back God, she turns her considerable reportorial skills to chronicling women who are pushing for greater rights in five religious communities: Catholicism, evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism. Tanenbaum is especially concerned about women's access to positions of religious leadership, and she profiles women who have created opportunities for women to, among other things, study Talmud and lead worship services. Tanenbaum is also interested in the ways religion shapes domestic politics -- Tanenbaum considers, for example, whether evangelicals with conservative views about male headship expect women to do "all the laundering, housecleaning, meal planning, cooking, grocery shopping, diaper changing, [and] child raising" even when both spouses work outside the home.

Still, Tanenbaum is optimistic. She believes that religious communities, even conservative religious communities that define themselves as invested in maintaining tradition, can change. Indeed, deep within these five religious traditions are precedents for women's leadership and for feminine imagery for the divine. Hence, integrating feminist insights into religious practice is itself, Tanenbaum argues, traditional.

Thus, like A Strange Stirring and Reading Women, Taking Back God is in part a book about reading. The women Tanenbaum profiles are not rereading Betty Friedan. They are, rather, reading and rereading sacred texts -- parsing, in community, what kinds of space those texts make for women, for feminism, for equality. The study of sacred texts, she says, "empowers [women] to become more actively involved in their faith. They are taking back their faith intellectually. The more they learn, the more they discover that they love their tradition and want to honor it as faithfully as they can -- which means being full, active participants." Amen.

Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God.

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