The Masculine Mystique?

In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique.  It is a ground-breaking work.

While conducting a survey of her classmates to mark the 15th anniversary of their graduation from Smith College, Ms. Friedan caught on to a phenomenon affecting millions of American women.

Following WWII, the concept of the modern American housewife was created.  Their husbands had come home from war, taken advantage of the G.I. Bill, gotten good jobs and created an American middle class.

These women were discouraged from working outside the home.  Their society told them that their role was to remain in the home, take care of the children, and prepare the best household possible for their working spouses.

Although not necessarily a life of ease, this existence was clearly a step upward in terms of social mobility for most women.  Many of them had emerged from working class backgrounds in which life had been harder and less stable.

The American Empire emerged in all of its Cold War glory.  There were cars in the driveways, children in the cribs and pies in the ovens.  These women were among the most contented humans ever to walk the planet.

Except, it didn’t necessarily work that way.

Friedan found that most women in this set of circumstances were dissatisfied with their situation.  Despite the presence of security and material possessions, most housewives of this period felt that something was missing.

This was the basis for The Feminine Mystique.  It challenged existing social norms and mores, while informing females that it was okay to want more from their lives.  Discontent with the “American Dream” did not make one a freak or ungrateful.  Rather, it was an underground current running through the plots of most American suburbs.

Madison Avenue advertising agencies told these women that the cure for their malaise lie in the acquisition of more goods.  Friedan called these agencies out as liars.  Paradoxically, the more material possessions that these women bought, the worse their condition became.

Friedan, with writers such as Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem, is among a handful of pioneers who served as a sort of early warning system to the rumbling that was occurring deep in the plate tectonics of American culture.  These seisms broke through the Earth during the women’s rights revolution of 10 to 15 years later.  But, that’s another story.

Stephanie Coontz has written an interesting account of Friedan’s affect on America.  A Strange Stirring:  The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s examines the book’s effect on her mother and women of her mother’s generation.

Coontz remarks that it is interesting that, when we refer to “The Greatest Generation” following World War Two, the speaker inevitably refers solely to men of that time.  Subconsciously, women of that period swallowed their “inferiority,” and worse yet, felt guilty about it.

Coontz points out that The Feminine Mystique was a “lifesaver” for many American women.  She applauds Friedan’s condemnation of mainstream psychology, which promoted the polemic that women had no need to search for deeper meaning in their lives beyond their roles as wives and mothers.

Hardly a blind cheerleader for Mystique (to which Coontz acknowledges that she is not particularly partial in light of its outdatedness), Coontz criticizes Friedan’s study for its failure to address the needs of minority and working class women.  In fact, Coontz was dismissive toward her own mother she tried to tell her daughter of the revelation she experienced upon reading Mystique.


Life in 21st century America is quite different for American women when compared to their mothers and grandmothers 50 years ago.  The advancements made are undeniable.

However, one must now question whether men at this point in time are undergoing an identity crisis of their own.  A male mystique, if you will.

Women make up the greater percentage of students in graduate and professional programs.  More and more, doors are opening for women in politics, the business world, religion and in many other spheres of influence.  Society has adjusted itself to allow for women to balance a career, a marriage and motherhood.  That’s not to say that all is well and there are no bumps in the road.  But the progress is palpable.

Now, what about the guys?  For every working wife and mother, there is presumably a male who pitches in and picks up the slack.  At least, I hope so.

I’m not talking about working, single mothers here.  They are a force of nature well beyond my comprehension.  But, many men are tying to do the right thing and contribute meaningfully in areas that were in past years the exclusive province of mothers.

In such cases, do most jobs accommodate working dads?  Is flexibility built into professions and trades to allow male workers the ability to take a sick kid to the doctor, or to attend the school play?  Are there harmful repercussions for fathers who want to place family needs at the same level as their employment requirements?

The answer is not clear cut.  It is a case-by-case basis.

Personally, I can speak to the tension I often feel between trying to do the best job I can as a lawyer and as a father.  There are times when I have missed the game/play/presentation to get the job done.  Do I feel guilty?  Yes and no.

Like the student who breaks his leg on the day of the big final, you feel bad that you are not taking the test.  However, you also have a feeling of self-righteousness because you have a good reason for skipping the exam.

Contemporary society tells Y-chromosomers that we are supposed to chip in and carry the weight for moms to help them achieve their full potential.

But, is anyone studying the stressful effect this can have on modern American fathers?  Their role and the societal expectations put upon them are certainly less defined than for their feminine counterparts.

Lookit, I’m not crying the blues here.  Men have had it good for a long, long time.

I’m just sayin’ — there might be something to this male mystique thing.

— The Major


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