But an at-home mother feels little obligation to the house itself; in fact, she is keenly aware that the house can be a vehicle of oppression. She is "at home" only because that is where her children happen to be. She does not define herself through her housekeeping; if she is in any way solvent (and many at-home mothers are), she has, at the very least, a once-a-month cleaning woman to do the most onerous tasks. (That some of the most significant achievements of the women's movement—specifically liberation from housework and child care—have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown-skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something vague about "universal day care" and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.) The at-home mother defines herself by her relationship to her children. She is making sacrifices on their behalf, giving up a career to give them something only she can. Her No. 1 complaint concerns the issue of respect: She demands it! Can't get enough of it! She isn't like a fifties housewife: ironing curtains, shampooing the carpets, stuck. She knows all about those women. She has seen Pleasantville and watched Leave It to Beaver; she's made more June Cleaver jokes than she can count. (In fact, June Cleaver—a character on a television show that went off the air in 1963—looms over her to a surprising extent, a sickening, terrifying specter: Is that how people think I spend my time?) If she has seen Todd Haynes's sumptuously beautiful recent movie, Far From Heaven, she understands and agrees wholeheartedly with the film's implication: that being a moneyed white housewife—with full-time help—in pre-Betty Friedan Hartford, Connecticut, was just as oppressive and soul-withering as being a black man in pre-civil rights Hartford. The at-home mother's attitude toward housewives of the fifties and sixties is a mixture of pity, outrage on their behalf, and gently mocking humor. (I recently received a birthday card that featured a perfectly coiffed fifties housewife standing in a gleaming kitchen. "The smart woman knows her way around the kitchen," the front of the card said. Inside: "Around the kitchen, out the back door, and to a decent restaurant.")
The at-home mother has a lot on her mind; to a significant extent she has herself on her mind. She must not allow herself to shrivel up with boredom. She must do things for herself. She must get to the gym, the spa, the yoga studio. To the book group. (She wouldn't be caught dead setting up tables and filling nut cups for a bridge party—June Cleaver! June Cleaver!—but a book group, which blends an agreeable seriousness of purpose with the kind of busy chitchat that women the world over adore, is irresistible.) She must go to lunch with like-minded friends, and to the movies. She needs to feed herself intellectually and emotionally; she needs to be on guard against exhaustion. She must find a way to combine the traditional women's work of childrearing with the kind of shared housework arrangements and domestic liberation that working mothers enjoy. Most important, she must somehow draw a line in the sand between the valuable, important work she is doing and the pathetic imprisonment, the Doll's House existence, of the housewife of old. It's a tall order.
From the archives:"The Mystique of Betty Friedan"
She helped to change not only the thinking but the lives of many American women, but recent books throw into question the intellectual and personal sources of her work. By Alan Wolfe
In a recent Los Angeles Times article the Hollywood producer Lynda Obst decries the tendency of upper-level female studio executives to quit their jobs once they become mothers; she implores, "Doesn't anyone remember how painfully poignant it was to grow up with a brilliant mother stuck in the suburbs with nothing to do?" This, of course, is the politically correct attitude about such women. The general idea, implied in countless nitwit books and articles and in a variety of popular movies, is that shortly after President Truman dropped the big one on Nagasaki, an entire generation of brave, brilliant women—many of them enjoying the deep satisfaction of doing shift work in munitions factories (the extent to which the riveters' lot is glorified by professional-class feminists who never set foot on a factory floor is shameful)—was kidnapped by a bunch of rat-bastard men, deposited in Levittown, and told to mop. That women in large numbers were eagerly, joyfully complicit in this life plan, that women helped to create the plan, is rarely considered. To be a young woman during the war years was to know that many of the boys from your high school class were overseas and, perhaps, that several of them had died there. It was to have a steady, often unspoken fear that a future including children and a husband and a household—women used to be unconflicted and unashamed about wanting these things—might not be in the cards. For it all to change on a dime—for the men to come home in vast, apparently unscathed numbers, and for there to be the GI Bill and GI mortgages and plenty of good jobs for returning servicemen (remember, these were women who had experienced childhoods in which there were not enough jobs, in which it was highly possible for a family to be ruined)—must have been a relief beyond measure. That women, en masse, reconsidered their plan in fairly short order—The Feminine Mystique was published within twenty years of VJ Day—also gets scant mention. The postwar housewife era, whether one views it with horror or nostalgia, was short-lived.