I first read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ when I was in my twenties. I was just out of college and anything feminist had instant appeal. Betty Friednan, I was told, was the original feminist (as it turned out, she wasn’t, there are many claimants to that appellation. She sparked, what we learnt later, a second-wave feminism). But, these were pre-Google days, rather these were pre-the-world-as-we-know-it-today days, and our biggest sources of information were our teachers and, who we liked to call, the Phd-types (we had no idea where they got their information from; it remains a mystery to date). Needless to say, their word was law. If they recommended a book or an author, we would go scurrying to libraries (any that we could get access to, which weren’t many, hence the scurrying) to lay our hands on the them. Friednan was suggested one such friend, who was really a step above the Phd types, she was the sure-shot-UPSC-type (though later I found out that she married her local guardian’s son and proceeded to live an obscure life defined largely by motherhood)
She was the real thing, however, in those days – the sort who would read ‘The Communist Manifesto’ before bedtime; the Oracle we would go to before any exam in the hope that we would generally absorb the wisdom that seemed to float around her like a glowing, massless orb. She had read The Feminie Mystique like a pop-fiction book and passed it on to me. And since anything she read was Gospel, I had declared my liking for it before she had had a chance to offer it to anyone else (I preferred it to ‘The Communist Manifesto’). I accepted the book with a mix of alacrity and grace, and read it from cover to cover, spouting quotes wherever I could, mainly to make points in arguments and debates. The real feminist book to read, of course, was The Second Sex, but my friend probably thought it too dense for non-Phd types like me, and had thus recommended Freidnan.
Years later, I came across the The Feminine Mystique again. For all my enthusiasm about the book, I realized that I didn’t remember much of it, except the fact that the women being talked about in it were far removed from my life – I didn’t know much about suburban American wives as a twenty-year-old. I remember understanding it, but not being able to relate to it, even if I quoted liberally from it (to appear academically superior to my peers; it mostly worked).
This time, however, I had no such problem. The opening paragraph made my hair stand on end, as I realized that the reason I could not relate to it earlier had nothing to do with geographical boundaries, but to do with the age I was at. I was twenty, single and full of idealism that youth bestows in abundance, blissfully unaware of the realities of life. Now, as a thirty-eight-year old mother of three who had been on a break from work, I was anything but unaware. And Freidnan’s words spoke directly to me: “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question–“Is this all?”
Friednan had hit the nail on its head by asking – is this all? It was the very existential question I had been avoiding asking myself. As I lay in bed at night and thought about the years that had slipped by, as I shopped for groceries, chased my children with spoons, took them to the doctors, drove them to their piano lessons, tennis classes and birthday parties, I realized I didn’t want to ask myself that question; I didn’t want to address the “strange stirring” Friednan spoke of. I felt old, fat and unemployable. After re-reading Friednan, however, there was no getting away from the question. Also, by now my Phd-type, bleeding-heart liberal friends had been replaced with mommies, who were at a similar stage in their lives and who collectively seemed to suffer from a similar affliction as me – with the problem that has no name.
The more I read Friednan, the more I seemed to meet women she was talking of, except these were women who were living fifty years later, and more than twelve thousand kilometers away from the American suburban wife Friednan spoke of. And yet, they seemed to be bound by a common thread; they felt the exact same sense of “stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning”.
What I must add here is that these were affluent women, much like their American counterparts (and for this Freidnan has faced criticism, but that’s for another story). They lived comfortable lives and had most things desirable – rich husbands, big houses, rocks on their fingers, luxury cars and all that came with being married into wealth. What they lacked, I realized, was a sense of self, a sense of accomplishment and purpose. And, that was exactly what I lacked too. For us (them and me) motherhood had been all consuming, but it had not provided the sense of fulfilment that society supposes it should for mothers. I cannot remember the number of times I have been told that I was doing a terrific job as a mother, the innuendo being that it is something I must continue to do, to the exclusion of all else. Motherhood, women are brought up to believe, is defined by the sacrifices you make as a mother – and this is exactly what The Feminine Mystique addresses – to the fact that women are/were trying to conform to some ideal image, despite their lack of fulfillment.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not belittling mother hood. I know, only too well, what it takes. My problem, so to speak, is with the picture that society paints of a mother – a sacrificing, patient, selfless, long-suffering woman– one who puts her own aspirations on hold for the sake of the ones she loves. And the problem with this picture is that little girls grow up believing this to be the image to aspire to. Worse still, little boys too are led to believe that there are predefined roles and definitions for men and women, ideas which they carry into adulthood.
Which brings me back to “the problem that has no name.” Women, whether in the previous generation, this one, or the next, will continue to feel a sense of restlessness (and depression), as long as they are made to be subservient to men, as long as they are expected to live their lives by rules defined by others, and as long as they try to conform to an ideal image of a woman, a mother, a wife.
The Feminine Mystique inspired a women’s movement in America. It irreversibly changed attitudes about women’s role in society and led to widespread activism for women’s rights and equality. In India, we need such a manifesto for change. We need to spell out the “problem that has no name”, or, as a first step, identify that there exists a real problem, only then can realities change. And while I didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at bedtime, a line from it leaps to mind, which I modify here:
“Women of India unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”