9 Feb 2006, Comments Off on No woman gets an orgasm from polishing the SUV

No woman gets an orgasm from polishing the SUV

Author: Helen

Picture from www.picturehistory.com/find/p/14892/mcms.html

Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique is part of the remembered landscape of my childhood.

From the time I learned to read, the spine with The Feminine Mystique jumped out at me from the bookshelves. The interesting title gave it, well, mystique. I had a bad habit, back then, of guessing at what words meant from context, instead of going to the dictionary. I imagined the book would be about how women think– the mystery behind it. Because as Friedan herself pointed out in the book, Freudian cliches- such as “what do women want” – permeated society then, trivialised and distorted through the lens of popular culture. Hmmm, plus ca change… When I was old enough to read the book, I discovered something quite different.

My mum was a passionate, dreamy literature buff with an offbeat sense of humour. While my father populated the shelves with Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling and nonfiction, my mother was the source of titles like Cold Comfort Farm, books by Ogden Nash, James Thurber, modern poetry and novels. In the way of the postwar period, she’d graduated with a BA in English Lit and then moved to the role of a faculty wife and stay-at-home mum.

An old friend described to me a visit to our house in about 1961, when my brother and I were very little. “There were dishes up to there,” she said “and your mum had forgotten we were coming. She was deep in a book at the time.

“You children were very much wanted – they just weren’t sure what to do with you when they had you.” A common situation, I think, in those days when motherhood was supposed to be “instinctive” and Dads weren’t supposed to be involved in working it all out.

I’m not saying her whole identity was subsumed by her domestic role; she was too spirited for that. But even as a kid I felt our mum needed something more than domestic science and sherry parties in her life. Betty Friedan spoke to people like her about that phenomenon: the problem that has no name. I wish I could talk to her now to ask her what she thought of it as she read, which ideas appealed to her.

My mum would have flowered in the Whitlam era. I imagine she might have returned to study and who knows what kind of employment. she would have regained her autonomy, not just as wife-of and mother-to, but something else: herself. But what you get from life isn’t necessarily what you deserve. In 1969, as the old patriarchal order began to crumble – at least around the edges – she died of an agressive cancer.

Betty may have been a flawed feminist (I’m sure she cringed in later life remembering the “lavender menace”) but her measured, authoriative writing did the job for me. We need to remember these older feminists with thanks. They really did change the world.

Comments (0)

  • Zoe says:

    They did Helen – fortunately just in time for my mum. She had to leave teaching when she had her first child, ten years later when I was born the world was a different place.

    As usual, a really well written and sensitive post. tks

  • Kate says:

    Lovely post Helen. I’ve never read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ but I think I should.

  • susoz says:

    Yes thanks. I’m sorry to hear your mother died so young and when you were so young too.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.