February 19th marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The book’s critical look at the supposedly-idyllic 1950’s housewife deeply impacted the feminist movement and the way Americans view women who work in their homes. The book ultimately recommends a cultural shift towards accepting women who seek fulfillment outside of their homes and family relationships.
Like many conservative women, I have a tortured relationship with feminism. The trouble begins with the term’s nebulous definition. It is used sometimes to refer to the hippie, feminine-tinged movement of the 60’s, but also can refer to the femininity-rejecting, aggressive movement of later decades (and the current day). Not all feminists sought to remove gender distinctions as a first step to greater personal freedom. Books like Female Chauvinist Pigs illustrate just how deeply this difference is felt within the movement we call “feminism”.
The conservative approach to examining contemporary social movements requires reflection on the traditions of Western Civilization in order to weigh the credibility of social change. A superficial review turns up little evidence of things resembling the American feminist movement in the successful social fabric of generations past. A knot begins to form in the stomach of the conservative woman who finds business environments fulfilling. Many women end their review of history too hastily, concluding that working outside of the home is an inherently un-conservative idea.
A more thorough look back tells a different story. Perhaps, to borrow a term from Edmund Burke, some elements of feminism are not “a revolution made, but prevented.” In fact, taking care of the home is something quite different in the modern era than in centuries past; a compelling case can be made that the modern housewife’s duties lack fundamental elements that contributed to the well-being of matriarchs of the past. The most crucial difference is the isolation of many modern housewives. In an urban environment, a woman who takes care of the home and children can complete all of her errands outside of the house without any meaningful social interaction. She may develop no real relationships with the cashiers at Target (where she will inevitably shop) or the sales assistant at TJ Maxx. In fact, she relies on no social network to accomplish any of her household duties. Housewives of the past, despite varying circumstances throughout the centuries, had a natural network of live-in servants, familiar merchants at the daily market, and cooperative neighbors that provided the social soil for them to live fulfilled lives. The modern wife and mother is more naturally isolated than ever before and may understandably feel a sense of incompleteness.
Modern feminism certainly reacts to this too strongly, erring in a number of ways too great to explain in detail. However, conservative women should not be afraid to embrace some of its advances, once they discover that the role of a housewife in the mid-20th century lacks the fulfilling breadth of ages past. After all, if I supported a return to the culture of the 1950’s, I’m not sure I would be in a position to write this post at all.