Sunday, January 16, 2011

a couple thoughts on feminist theory

     I've been thinking about Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, recently.  We read a small portion of the text for a woman's studies class that I am a teaching assistant for.  The class paired off the text with the fourth chapter of bell hooks' Ain't I a Woman, posing the latter as an implicit and explicit critique of the text.  hooks' critique of the book is linked to a larger critique of the women's movement of the 1970's, critiquing the assumptions of radical feminists concerning the category 'woman.'  The critique that hooks launches against those movements is devastating, revealing racism in both the theoretical formation of the movement and in its historical erasures.
       However, there is a dimension of the critique that doesn't fit Friedan's work quite as well as the radical and cultural feminism of the 1970's.  Unlike that academic work, Friedan's claims about gender are quite modest, focusing on the experiences of housewives in the post-war period.  The problem without a name that Friedan identifies is a discrete, historical one, dealing with the new post-war domestic formation, with its infrastructure of expertise, its expectations that the nuclear family will solve all emotional, psychic, and social problems of its members.  Additionally, she posited a problem that existed in the wake of women's suffrage, ostensibly allowing for equal citizenship.  Both that labor and the anger regarding the invariable failure of that family structure was placed upon women.  Daniel Horowitz notes in his biography of Frieday that the text can be read in the context of a number of of other post-war leftist critiques of the new prosperity, such as Marcuse's One Dimensional Man or the work of C. Wright Mills.  Friedan explicitly contextualized this unnamed and unpolitical situation with the struggles for civil rights in the country and the worldwide anti-colonial struggles at the time. 
       In effect, Friedan's work avoided the sort of trans-historical claims that later scholars would make.  Her claims were focused on a particular population at a particular time.  The reason that this was missed can be linked to two major issues, 1.) Friedan's work was read as scholarly literature, rather than the critical journalistic framework that it was working through.  2.) Friedan's problematic legacy as an activist in NOW (National Organization of Women).
     To start with the first issue, Friedan, despite her involvement in post-graduate work, was primarily a journalist.  She got her start in a variety of popular front and union newspapers, reporting on labor and women's issues.  That work continued in the 1950's as Friedan moved from the defunct popular front press to a number of traditional women's journals.  The Feminine Mystique can largely be read as a combination of her academic work on psychology with her professional work as a journalist.  This leads to a fairly remarkable document bringing together that background in psychology with a critical analysis of the new infrastructure of domestic science with the critiques of instrumental reason that were the impetus to the initial formation of the new left.  However, Friedan framed that conversation within a journalistic framework, leaving the subject of her topic implicit, rather than explicit.  Certainly, a more explicit framework focusing on the coagulation of whiteness in this figure, its racial exclusions, and the remaining class based exclusions would have produced a sharper text, but we should read the text for what it is, rather than insisting on a set of alien criteria.
         The second issue is also interesting.  One should not dismiss the forms of homophobia that Friedan brought into the structure of NOW as the Gay Liberation movement got underway.  There are some historical reasons that I think explain this.  If folks are interested, I could work through them, but they don't in any sense excuse this behavior.  At the same time, I can't find any productive linkage with this particular issue and the text itself.  Perhaps this argument can be made, but I can't at this point.  In any case, I think that the text is worth reading on its own merits.  My other thought on this is that it seems that it may be the time to move from a polemical reading of these texts, to a historical, analytical reading of the texts.  These were important conflicts of the early 1980's and 1990's, and the polemical work of hooks, Lorde, Anzuldua and others is crucial to producing a more productive critical feminist framework, but there has become something repetitive about this labor.
       Tangentially, I've also returned to the work of Anzaldua within the context of this class.  Her anthology This Bridge Called my Back is considered to be a crucial text within the shift in the discipline of women's studies along with the feminist movement.  At the same time, this text has been out of print for over a decade.  There is something distinctly disturbing about the fact that this crucial analysis of racism is not readily accessible.


  1. Thanks, Bob. I'm can't wait to call you and discuss this.

  2. Here's a link to an online copy of This Bridge Called My Back for all your fans out there: