What Betty Friedan Could Have Learned from Reading 'Agnes Grey'

The 1847 Anne Brontë novel can be read as both a critique of the theories presented in The Feminine Mystique and an illustration of them.

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Wikimedia; Oxford World's Classics

The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old this week, and it still feels as relevant as ever. Yes, it's true that the post-war cult of domesticity which Friedan attacked has been thoroughly undermined. And yes, these days we're arguing not about whether a woman's place is in the home, but about whether a woman's place is in military combat.

But if the terms of the feminist argument have changed, the structure of it has not. American feminism still, like Friedan, largely rejects domesticity—or, as Friedan called it, "the problem that has no name." It still sees its goal as equality in traditionally male spheres, and still sees happiness and satisfaction as coming primarily through career achievement; Betty Friedan's feminism had paid work and equality, not family and feminine values, at its center. Whether the issue is military service or abortion rights, that is still, for the most part, the feminism Americans have got.

For post-Friedan folks, then, looking at a pre-Friedan feminism can be jolting. That was my experience, anyway, when I recently read Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey. The 1847 novel reads today as a feminist denunciation of the hardships and inequities faced by female governesses. Brontë's portrait of the unfair, demeaning, constrictive plight of those women matches, in its quiet, righteous fury, Friedan's portrait of the unfair, demeaning, constrictive plight of housewives.

But the fury and the feminism are, perhaps, where the similarities end. In fact, Agnes Grey can almost be read as a deliberate, impassioned point by point refutation of the Feminine Mystique. Agnes Grey, a poor clergyman's daughter, decides to become a governess. She explains that she wants "to go out into the world; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my own unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance"—all motives of which Friedan would approve.

But in the event, employment for Agnes is not an exercise in self-actualization. Instead, the work is thankless and degrading. The families that hire her treat her, not as a professional, but as a menial. The children, seeing that she is not respected, misbehave and refuse to learn anything—for which, of course, the governess is blamed.

Work, then, doesn't lead to empowerment. But Brontë goes further than that, and actually rejects the goal of empowerment itself. The children Agnes watches all desire mastery and self-actualization—and that desire leads them not to healthy individualism, but to selfishness and sadism. One of the boys Agnes looks after relishes finding small birds and torturing them to death. Another charge, Miss Matilda Murray, also enjoys hunting and killing animals. She cheerfully displays the broken body of a rabbit caught by her dog and explaining with relish that "It cried out just like a child." In our enthusiastically self-actualizing culture, we like to think of these outcomes as abnormal or deviant—but Brontë doesn't present them that way. Instead, the brutality to animals is the natural consequence of untamed selfishness and self-seeking.

Rosalie Murray, Agnes' oldest student, doesn't torture animals. She is thoroughly vain, though, and amuses herself with flirtation and breaking men's hearts—until she marries a rich, dissipated lord for his money. The marriage is unhappy and she sinks into misery, prompting Agnes' pity. She suggests to her former pupil that she can perhaps find happiness by devoting herself to her child—and Rosalie shows the depths of her shallowness when she replies, "I can't centre all my hopes in a child: that is only one degree better than devoting oneself to a dog." Agnes, in contrast, does end the novel devoting herself to children—not to those she is hired to watch, but to her own, as she marries a worthy clergyman and settles into happy domesticity as the angel of the house.

There's certainly a fair bit in Agnes Grey that rings true as a critique of Friedan. For most people, most of the time, work is, as Brontë would have it, hard and depressing and humiliating. Agnes is at the beck and call of selfish, wayward, barely civilized children—which is not a bad metaphor for the managers and bureaucrats and CEOs for whom the bulk of us toil. If housework is drudgery, so often is other work. And Agnes also suggests that if one woman escapes her housework, that only means that another, poorer woman is going to have to do it for her.

Similarly, there's something to Brontë's view of empowerment as brutality. If strong self-sufficiency is the ideal, why not tear apart that hare? And why look after that child? Brontë extols traditionally feminine virtues of sympathy, empathy, and caring—for animals, for children—as an alternative to an empowered self-assertion which seems little better than thuggishness.

But there are also several points at which Brontë's storyunderlines rather than undermines The Feminine Mystique. This is most clearly the case in the treatment of Miss Matilda, the hare killer. Matilda is supposed to be an unruly, unattractive, brutish child. In part this is because she likes to kill animals. But mostly the killing animals is just a symptom of a larger and more sinister syndrome—tomboyism. Matilda likes to ride horses and talk to the grooms and hunt and curse—all manly, bloody, muddy pursuits at which the prim Agnes turns up her nose. The girl is, then, presented as a kind of uncouth monster because she doesn't want to be a delicate marriageable flower.

By the same token, from Friedan's perspective, Matilda's sister Rosalie is a hyper-feminine flirt not because she's corrupt, but because that's the only way she can manage to maintain any sort of agency at all. Rosalie is not allowed to choose a profession; she's not even allowed to choose her husband, who is selected for her by her mother. What outlet does she have for self-satisfaction other than breaking men's hearts? Her sadistic relish of one suitor's pain recalls Matilda's sadism with the rabbit—and I think Friedan would see both as an expression of vicious desperation of the imprisoned. Rosalie wants to enjoy her life—and all Agnes can suggest to her is that she give up that very reasonable ambition in order to live through her child. A child can be a great joy—but even a great joy can become a cruelty when it's the only joy you're allowed.

Agnes, then, can see the downsides of the traditionally male sphere of commerce, and she can see the callousness and bloodshed that often lie at the end of the traditionally male pursuit of empowerment. But, in part because of when she lived, she doesn't have any way to talk about the socially enforced prison of self-abnegation to which traditional femininity can consign women. Friedan, on the other hand, would set Matilda free to ride her horses and she would grant Rosalie a divorce and a job. But Friedan would likely have had trouble explaining why that job might be soul-crushing, or why Matilda shouldn't whip her horse bloody if she feels like it. Which is why, many years after she published her book, we still need Anne Brontë—and Betty Friedan too.