The Feminine Mystique
Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture was eye-opening, to say the least. Miller did an excellent job of presenting the argument that religious people have come to be consumers of religion much like we consume everything else in our culture. The chapter of the book that caught my attention was the chapter on “The Commodification of Culture”, and how we have consumed aspects of American culture like it is a commodity to be consumed. One of the sections talked about the introduction of the single-family home. “Aglietta calls attention to the correlation of the greater extraction of workers’ energy during the workday with the decline of the homestead as a place of production and the rise of the single-family home, where the nuclear family depends on wages to support a consumption-centered lifestyle.” This change from a multi-generational home, where the whole family worked together to make a life for themselves, to a home with just one family altered the landscape of America forever. Miller states, “The corporate motto of the Federal National Home Mortgage Association—“We’re in the American Dream Business”–communicates how important the single-family home is as a social idea. Other politically powerful myths, such as “family values”, Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, and the innocence of childhood are link to it as well.”
In reading about what the single-family home did to change our culture, I noticed a reference to Betty Friedan’s concept of the “feminine mystique”, and as you can imagine (and expect), I had to explore this further. In my research, I found that this is the title of her book written in 1963, which was republished in 2013 for the fiftieth anniversary. In the book, she talks about “the problem that has no name” that plagued many, many American women. Friedan states that “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?” This aspect of American culture that became consumed left women holding the bag by themselves at home, depressed, lost, and angry. What used to be a thriving multi-generational homestead of teamwork and enterprise became a single-family prison for most women.
“Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say “I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete.” Or she would say, “I feel as if I don’t exist.” Sometimes she blotted out the feeling with a tranquilizer. Sometimes she thought the problem was with her husband, or her children, or that what she really needed was to redecorate her house, or move to a better neighborhood, or have an affair, or another baby.” Women knew deep down inside there had to be more to this life than being trapped inside a home serving everyone inside of it. Granted, not every woman struggled with this to the same extent, but the women who wanted to pursue education and a career of their own felt very alone and disregarded. This is the time when the media would focus on marketing home products that were not only targeted exclusively to women but were also designed to keep them trapped in their little automated, consumer world. The saddest part was that no one was listening to these women and they had no real help. As Friedan says, “even so, most men, and some women, still did not know that this problem was real. But those who had faced it honestly knew that all the superficial remedies, the sympathetic advice, the scolding words and the cheering words were somehow drowning the problem in unreality.” This book became groundbreaking in highlighting the plight of the American housewife, and many women would recognize Betty Friedan as the reason they have a voice and a fulfilling life today. In fact, in 1970 Friedan called for women around the country to march to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the women’s suffrage amendment, which created a mass turnout in cities across the country.
Just like when the invention of the single-family home changed our culture dramatically, our culture continues to undergo commodification in the way we adapt and change the way we live in order to feed our selfish desires. In Terry Clark’s review of Miller, he states, “according to Miller, a self-centered therapeutic culture has been created from a variety of movements that fed into consumerism. Outsourcing of production rather than home-crafting products and services reduces consumers to “passive spectators” (p. 60). Drawing on ethicist Peter Sedgwick, Miller argues that consumerism grounds its moral justification in eighteenth-century Romanticism, which emphasizes self-creation and the importance of display for the maintenance of social identity. The result, he claims (p. 85), is “a fragmenting narcissism that transforms everything, including religion, into a self-centered, therapeutic exercise.” It is interesting he uses the term therapeutic to describe the consumerism in our culture, and I have to agree with him that we have created a country full of narcissists who can’t see past their own nose to see the hurting world around them. I’m grateful for the progress that has been made in bringing women out of the home, men back in the home, and more gender-balance in our leadership…but we have a long way to go.
 Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, New York: Continuum, 2005. P. 46.
 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition) W. W. Norton & Company, Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 225-229.
 Terry Clark, “Book Review (Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture)” Journal of Marketing 69, no. 4 (2005): 264.
5 responses to “The Feminine Mystique”
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You give a passionate review on the consumerist condition of women in American society. While their treatment needs a lot of social improvements, unfortunately there is much worse treatment towards women being perpetrated in the world.
For instance, when my wife and I served as missionaries in Afghanistan the women could not drive, vote, go out alone in public, and many were mandated to wear the “burka” based on the direction of the husband or local religious leader, “mullah.” My wife connected with many Afghan women in burkas who would come to visit her in our mission compound, sell their handicrafts to support the family, and share tea and sweeties behind the security of a 10’ wall. This was a culturally polite type of begging by permission. However, when out in the marketplace the women had to walk behind the men, not look at other men, especially expatriates, and were segregated in all public scenarios. Marriages were arranged, and men had multiple wives. I will save Africa stories for another time.
I believe in the literal Bible, so Moses reports in Gen. 2:22 that God made woman. Praise the Lord! I’ve been married to JoAnne (you met in Cape Town) for 37 years this month.
It’s so fascinating (in a negative way) that all the progress we felt we were attaining in the 50s and 60s really resulted in imprisoning women in their single-family homes, alone, depressed, trapped. Your statement is bang-on: “What used to be a thriving multi-generational homestead of teamwork and enterprise became a single-family prison for most women.”
I don’t know if you ever watched the Netflix series Mad Men, but the character Betty suffers in this way through all seven seasons. It’s painful to watch, but authentically portrayed. Anyway, that’s what I thought of when I read your post!
For Mad Men geeks:
Very thought provoking and insightful, and your quoting, “a fragmenting narcissism that transforms everything, including religion, into a self-centered, therapeutic exercise.”
I so wish Jesus would come back soon!
The shift in family is so relevant to what we are seeing here. Families being displaced to look for jobs or the move away from old home town to new locations and only bringing their nuclear families (and not extended) in having a real struggle not only on villages but also on the elderly.
My wife hated only being a stay-at-home wife. She felt unfulfilled and having a lack of meaning in her life. Then felt guilty for having those feeling. Thank Jake for bringing to light a struggle many have between doing what is expected of them (be it culturally or personal expectations) and what they would bring fullness to their life.
I like that you found the women’s issue connection in highlighting of the development of the single family home. The change was so drastic and really fueled by the consumer culture. Even with the women’s liberation movement and the increased freedom of women to make choices best for them, I think there are still negative residual effects of this on the pressures that many women feel. It also appears that multi-generational living situations are not coming back anytime soon further fueling the need to consume more resources than if more communal living became the norm once again. Maybe the Church should be at the forefront of this move to return to a more communal lifestyle.