By PAUL CAMPOS
The death of Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," brings to mind a passage from George Orwell's classic essay on Dickens. What, Orwell asks, does the happy ending of the typical Dickens novel tell us about what the great Victorian writer thought was the best way to live? "When Martin Chuzzlewit had made it up with his uncle, when Nicholas Nickleby had married money, when John Harmon had been enriched by Boffin - what did they do?"
The death of Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," brings to mind a passage from George Orwell's classic essay on Dickens. What, Orwell asks, does the happy ending of the typical Dickens novel tell us about what the great Victorian writer thought was the best way to live? "When Martin Chuzzlewit had made it up with his uncle, when Nicholas Nickleby had married money, when John Harmon had been enriched by Boffin _ what did they do?"
"The answer," Orwell points out, "is that they did nothing." Dickens novels celebrate "complete idleness" _ and of a very specific sort. "His heroes, once they had come into money and 'settled down,' would not only do no work; they would not even ride, hunt, shoot, fight duels, elope with actresses or lose money at the races." Instead, "the ideal to be striven after appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic. Home life is always enough."
This is not so different from the vision of domestic bliss Friedan's book rebelled against a century later. What Friedan discovered was that middle- and upper-class housewives were often intensely bored and dissatisfied with their lives _ not only, or even primarily, because of the drudgery of housework, and the stress of raising children, but precisely because home life was not enough.
Indeed, "the problem with no name" that Friedan's book described did not disappear among women who enjoyed a level of affluence that required them to do little or no domestic work. If anything, it got worse.
Friedan's book was a watershed event in the history of modern feminism, but the problem she highlighted went well beyond gender politics. The book, or another version of it, could have been titled "The American Mystique" _ a mystique that has roots in, among other things, the Victorian dream of complete idleness described by Dickens.
From every corner of our culture, Americans are bombarded with the message that happiness is achieved by avoiding work and consuming leisure. On this view, the point of work is to acquire enough capital to escape from having to work at all. This is not merely Madison Avenue's message, endlessly repeated. Consider that the entire field of economics is based on the principle that work is, to use the academic jargon, a "disutility." That is, it's assumed people work so that they can stop working, because work is defined as something people do when they would prefer to be doing something else.
Turn on any television or flip through any of a thousand magazines and you will find the vision of a life without work held out like a glimpse of paradise. And it is true that, for anyone who must do dangerous or exhausting or simply boring work merely to afford food and shelter, the notion that there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about a life of leisure must seem like a neurotic upper-class delusion. (Critics of "The Feminine Mystique," which focused almost exclusively on comparatively privileged women, often made this point.)
Nevertheless, Friedan's book struck a deep nerve, in part because the dream of radiant idleness and endless consumption that entranced the Victorians and that continues to fascinate us can so easily become a nightmare.
Another classic Victorian writer, William Morris, once wrote a poem titled "Love is Enough," which is said to have inspired the following three-word review: "No it isn't." Betty Friedan understood that well _ which is one reason "The Feminine Mystique" proved to be such an influential and subversive book.
(Paul C. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)
|Sign up for our Daily Newsletter mailing list!|