Regrets of a brown mother. The Feminine Mystique in 2021
The Feminine Mystique, a phrase coined by Betty Friedan, in 1963 was pivotal for the second wave of the feminist movement. The term was created to expose and challenge the societal assumption that the domestic sphere involving housework, marriage, and children, alone can lead to fulfilment in women’s lives.
The titular concept struck a chord with me, after a phone call from my Indian mother. Tedious conversations led us to talk about regrets, hers being of never having worked outside the confines of the domestic space, despite having the qualifications to do so. Now at the age of sixty-two, with her husband juggling between work and social commitments, and both the daughters leading their life away from home, she reflects on her life. She rethinks and ponders on decisions taken decades ago, to be a devoted wife, a doting mother and pushing a job to the background. Her identity, thus, has always been defined by her familial roles. She regrets not having a slice of life reserved just for herself. Almost compensating, she now emphasizes the need for an independent identity, a professional life, and the resulting community of like-minded women. Her regretful tone served as a reminder of how relevant Friedan’s idea still is in 2021.
As the conversation progresses, she talked of how domestic work -one that occupies the largest portion of a homemaker’s day and life- isn’t counted as work at all. It is no news that reproductive labour remains to be unpaid and unrecognized in a capitalistic society. It seems difficult to hope for women to have a sense of personal achievement, essential for pride in one’s identity, when the overarching social structure places no significant value on their work. In many ways, she echoed the Marxist feminists of the 20th century, without having a clue of what they said. I realized that she hasn’t studied these theories, she has lived them.
In the book, Friedan wrote against the belief prevailing in the 1950s that "fulfilment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949—the housewife-mother." She emphasized the need for fulfilment outside the traditional roles. When exploring Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs through the lens of gender, it is observed that the peak of the pyramid (self-actualization) remains only a dream for housewife-mothers. The fulfilment of their true potential requires meaningful work apart from domestic responsibilities. My mother too needed much more than a life resigned to domesticity. Friedan’s critique of the patriarchal society in 1950’s rings true in the postmodern world of 2021. And my mother is a living testimonial of it.
Surbhi Singh is an Indian feminist pursuing media studies in Melbourne. She explores gender in society through audiovisual and written tools of media.