About a month ago, I started reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Since registering for the Feminist Theory class, I wanted to try to read more feminist writing. I had read somewhere on the Internet that Friedan’s book is a feminist classic, so I had to pick it up when I saw it in the bookstore.
The Feminine Mystique is basically about how middle-class women were pressured and manipulated through the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s to think that the only way they could be fulfilled as women was to quickly find husbands, have children, and dedicate themselves to being housewives. Friedan’s first chapter describes what she calls “the problem with no name”, an epidemic that infected a large number of 1960’s American housewives. The illness is described by most of the housewives as a sort of empty feeling, which is recognized by Friedan as a depression brought on by multiple factors, like lack of intellectual challenge and self-identity. Of course, the women’s illnesses were not taken seriously at the time. Most men blamed it on too much education since most of these women had college degrees. Throughout her book, Friedan describes the various institutions that influenced these women to believe that becoming a housewife was a woman’s only purpose in life, instead of allowing them to find out for themselves if being a housewife was what they really wanted. I thought the way the institutions affected the women was so shocking. It’s incredible that there were just so many factors involved to create this one outcome, and that the feminine mystique was not some crazy conspiracy cooked up by the patriarchal government to control middle-class women by turning them into housewives (Friedan actually wrote in her book that it was not a conspiracy).
In the chapter called, “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available”, Friedan talks about the part that the advertising industry played in manipulating middle-class women into being housewives by glorifying and glamorizing the role of housewife. At some point, Friedan wonders, “could women be prevented from realizing their full capabilities by making their role in the home equal to man’s role in society?” This question reminded me of the traditional Japanese housewife role called ryosai kenbo or “Good Wife, Wise Mother”. The way this role was integrated into Japanese society was similar to the way the advertising companies presented the feminine mystique. The Japanese government glorified the position as a way for women to feel fulfilled and contribute to society in a way that still kept them inside the gender boundaries. Despite the fact that both were housewife roles, there are several differences between these two positions.
For America, the feminine mystique was really only applied to white middle-class women. While, ryosai kenbo was applied to all classes. To make this work, the Japanese government widened the term to include working lower-class women by saying that it was the wife/mother’s duty to contribute in any way she could to the family unit. The family system, or ie, was extremely important in Japan because in order to inspire loyalty in the Japanese citizens the government propagated the image of Japan itself as a family unit with the emperor as the head of the family. With this ideology, women were able to work to support their families while still filling the role of ryosai kenbo, and during wartime, women from all classes were able to contribute to the war effort in order to fulfill their roles as loyal Japanese citizens.
Another difference between the two positions is that in Japan, the public and private spheres were not separate. In Friedan’s book, many American housewives complained of feeling detached from the outside world. Housewives in the U.S. were contained within the domestic sphere, but Japanese ryosai kenbo were thought of as public figures and civil servants, contributing to Japan’s economy and educating the future generation of Japanese citizens and soldiers. By placing so much importance on the woman’s role, the Japanese government could keep women within the appropriate gender roles by elevating wife/mother to a seemingly honorable status in Japanese society.
I find it so interesting that these two roles from different cultures could both be wife/mother roles, yet also be very different. According to Friedan, it seems like the influence of the feminine mystique kept middle-class women from maturing into self-realized individuals, while ryosai kenbo, though just as limiting as the feminine mystique, gave women a chance to reach beyond the domestic sphere.