Sunday, February 05, 2006

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan died yesterday on her 85th birthday. The following is from R~.

The weekend was just like the previous weekend, and the one before. I was attending one more religious discourse, this time by Swami Chinmayananda. As I entered the packed grounds of Nizams college, Swamiji was already well into his discourse. He was asking the audience to imagine that God grants them all their wishes one fine day; a palatial house, swanky cars, power, position, beautiful wife, ...

My thoughts drifted at this point. Beautiful wife? Comparable to palatial houses and cars? But I didn't say anything to anybody. My much older cousin picked up a small book by the Chinmaya trust on our way out. She was reading parts of it aloud on our way home, and she told me: "he says young girls of the day should emulate strong women like Betty Friedan. Height of contradiction. Commodotizing women in talks while writing like this ..."

That's when I first heard of Betty Friedan. I picked up a copy of the Feminine Mystique in the local library. "I wasn't even conscious of the woman problem [until beginning to write the Feminine Mystique]," Friedan famously remarked in 1973. So true! I didn't seriously think of it myself until I started reading the book, in spite of several brushes with it in the past. The power of her writing, for me, lies in the way she is able to connect with the reader.

"Engineering? Why not home science or even literature?" Often a question I faced when I was trying to give my engineering exams ...

I grew up in a moderately conservative middle class south Indian setting. My family proudly says that the girls and boys in our family are treated exactly the same. And it would appear so. I studied what I wanted and where I wanted, lived the way I wanted, married who I wanted, etc. And so did the boys in the family. But that didn't quite turn out to be equal. The girls attended music and dance classes, while the boys went for volleyball and karate, I learnt embroidery in school (btw, this was in a class called Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW)!), while my cousin brother learnt how to fix household appliances.

Now I didn't think anything was necessarily wrong with this model. I had no great interest in embroidery, but I didn't care about fixing appliances either. So it didn't matter. Or it didn't until I befriended this new girl who had just moved into the neighborhood. She desperately wanted to play basketball. But of course, she couldn't. Which girl in her right mind would want to indulge in non-delicate things like that. Besides, how was it going to help? You could do embroidery over a casual chat, you could teach your children how to sing and dance, but what on earth would a girl do with basket ball training? All I could do to help was to share my friend's pain and tears.

So, of course I can relate to what Friedan says:

    Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire -- no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents. They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights -- the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity. All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.
Several years after I left home, having worked across various corporate settings in different countries, I had come across instances of not-so-subtle discrimination on and off. Like, for instance, when my male colleague was chosen to transition a piece of work from South Africa (why send the "girl" alone to such a place for three months?). Or when a colleague was not allowed to make a presentation to the board because "these hawks seem brutal. Let one of us make the presso, and not leave the lady to them" and so on. But an incident two summers back shocked me, very rudely. My friend had just returned from her maternity leave. Exactly three months. The trouble started right then. The first few months were a test of patience of sorts with questions like "who's taking care of the baby if you are at work", "are you able to give the same attention to work now" etc. During her absence, her responsibilities were taken over by someone else. Even three months after her return, that had not changed. The appraisal season concluded with my dear friend getting a 3% raise. The average raise was 18%. Reason: she had put in nine months of work, not 12! Do the math. How terribly terribly sad. Makes me wonder: has much changed since Friedan was fired in 1952 for being pregnant? May be I'm being too cynical.

I have had my share of discontent with Friedan. The very white upper middle class issues that she discusses, her opposition to the discussion of lesbianism or sexuality in NOW, etc. But what I am most grateful for is the wave of consciousness she created. She may not have raised all the questions, but she has certainly caused many relevant questions to be raised.

P.S: Two links:

Update (Feb 6): More on Betty Friedan @ Yossarian Lives.


At 6:29 AM, Blogger froginthewell said...

1. Anand, where is this "height of contradiction"? How does desiring for a beautiful wife amount to commoditizing - I mean, why do you think all the examples someone lists should be comparable to one another?

2. I hope you realize that this school distinction is unfair to boys also. Not every boy wants to play basketball or do march past.

Same thing about career - for most people, atleast for not-so-successful people like me, career is only a burden and not a very delightful field for improvisation where I enjoy and gratify myself. So the society has been unfair to men by expecting them to be able to find a job and support the family; while what they expected of women was a requirement independent of societal competition.

Indeed I am against the ugly stereotypes and traditional division of roles. When they say "why send the "girl" alone to such a place for three months?" the one who made the decision might have assumed something about the social background of the employee - may be directly talking to that person and confirming there was no such problem might have helped ( I am not saying this settles the general issue ).

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Vishnu said...

Nice piece.

I learnt embroidery in school (btw, this was in a class called Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW)!), while my cousin brother learnt how to fix household appliances.

Was it a KV, by any chance? We did the same thing at KV! Well, at times, we helped with coconut-plucking (is that the correct term) instead of fixing appliances. [Why do I always drift away from the topic?]

At 3:55 AM, Blogger -സു‍-|Sunil said...

Prof S Gupthan Nair also passed away today, Anand

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Neela said...


I liked this post - an excellent post from R~. I haven't read The Feminine Mystique but plan to read it shortly.

Have you read John Stuart Mill "On the Subjugation of women"? A very interesting read.

On a sort of unrelated note, and given your mathematics/science (?) background, do you know of any scholarships instituted for underprivileged girls to continue an education in mathematics or science related fields? Do drop me a line if you do.



At 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anand said...

Thanks Neela. I haven't read either of those two books. One day, I'll!

I do not know of any fellowship specific to underprivileged students. Please check this site and see whether the student can try for it.

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