Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, and the Bieganski Mystique.

Betty Friedan. AP / Anthony Camerano

Stereotypes of Poles as animalistic brutes are so common in American popular culture, academia, and journalism that I had a superabundance of material to choose from. One book I did not cite but could have: Betty Friedan's epoch-making feminist manifesto, "The Feminine Mystique."
I'm rereading the book now for a course. I had reservations about it the first time I read it; this time, at first, I fought with myself. "I must love this tract because I am a feminist" battled it out with "This book is crap."
"This book is crap" won the duel.


Friedan's sources don't hold up.


She cherry picks; if she finds a study whose conclusion she likes she cites it; she ignores research that doesn't support her. What would she make of current studies that suggest that some differences between males and females are hardwired?


She lambastes what she doesn't like about Freud; she cites what she does like about Freud, for example, his thoughts about homosexuals (275). Friedan: "homosexuality is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene" because of "parasitical mother-love." "Homosexuals often lack the maturity to finish school and make sustained professional commitments" (276).


Friedan's childhood was unhappy not because she grew up under the thumb of oppressive patriarch, but because her mother was an "insatiably greedy," unpleasant shrew who relentlessly belittled her father.


She fictionalized her life on many levels, from name changes (Bettye to Betty; Friedman to Friedan) to hiding her Stalinism that was so doctrinaire that she opposed joining the war against Nazi Germany as long as Stalin opposed it.


Friedan's constant belittling of women is grating. Women who fall in love are fluff heads. Women who build their lives around home and children are embarrassments. Women who clean their own homes are worthless fools. Pretty, blue-eyed blondes come in for real trash talk. Friedan never sees the irony in her demand that a real feminist is someone who hires a nanny and a housekeeper to do the lowly work of making a home. A real feminist is doing "important" things like those glorious comrades who marched with Castro (36).


You realize, in reading this book, why history's pendulum had to cough up reactions like Madonna and Martha Stewart.


Of course there are the disturbing allegations that Friedan's husband beat her, and that she beat him.


Friedan insists on the complete plasticity of gender identity. That conceit has had very tragic applications, as in the case of David Reimer. Maybe I need to read this book a third time to come to value its gifts and forgive its flaws.


"The Feminine Mystique" is proof of the need for Godwin's Law. Friedan repeatedly and emphatically compares the status of American housewives to the status of Nazi concentration camp inmates (305-09). Way to trivialize the Holocaust, Betty, and to muddy the waters for those who wish to discuss misogyny with any intelligence or integrity.

I've long wondered at mainstream American feminism's many failures: its inability to appeal to more women, its failure to step up to the plate regarding Islamic gender apartheid and sex trafficking. Friedan's book was foundational. It is replete with ideological cracks.


***
Friedan quotes a study by University of New Hampshire sociologist Arnold W. Green that depicts Poles as animalistic brutes.


Poles. They Don't Know What Love Is.
Just like primitive tribes!

Green's focus is not Poles; Poles exist to serve as contrast to a more important population.

"The Middle Class Male Child and Neurosis" appeared in the American Sociological Review, XI:1 (February 1946) 31-41.


Though Poles beat their children savagely, the children don't become neurotic the way that American middle class children do, Green wrote, because there is no love bond between Polish parent and child.


Green describes a "Polish colony," a mill town in Massachusetts.


"Norms governing courtship and marriage do not apply within this Polish colony. This is also true of parent child relationships … their expectations of their American-born children's conduct reflect an alien peasant system of values. An outstanding feature of peasant family life, in contradistinction to that of modern, middle-class family organization, is the stress placed upon rules and work functions rather than personal sentiment … these rules of conduct and this parental authority are out of place in this American industrial slum."


Parents "are met with the anger and ridicule of their children. These "peasant" parents exercised "vengeful, irrational" parental authority.


"Love is alien to peasant mores"

"Parents apply the fist and the whip rather indiscriminately. The sound of blows, screams, howls, vexations, wails of torment, and hatred are so commonplace along the rows of dilapidated millhouses that the passersby pay them scant attention."

"The open woods and fields are close at hand and the children roam far. The homes are not clean, nor do they contain furniture of any value…children develop openly malicious contempt for their parents as stupid … their training is very similar to that received in many primitive tribes."


Green introduces no Polish informants. He provides no transcripts of interviews. He produces no data to support his assertions of Poles as dirty primitives who don't know what love is. He offers no solution, no suggestions for intervention. He didn't have to. Again, this was published in a scholarly journal.


Friedan liked what Green had to say, so she quoted it unquestioningly and approvingly in "The Feminine Mystique." A woman identified as a liberator and groundbreaker couldn't see the dehumanizing classism and elitism that jumps out at this reader in both Friedan's citation of Green and in Green's original article. Both Friedan, and Green, might as well have been writing about zoo animals.

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