Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of The Feminine Mystique
On Saturday 30 November 2013 the Sixth Annual Conference of the Society for the History of Women in the Americas, co-organised with Royal Holloway's Bedford Centre, took place at Royal Holloway.
The conference theme was ‘Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of the Feminine Mystique.’ 2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique by the American activist and feminist Betty Friedan and as such it was a pertinent time to explore the text, but also to think about how it continues to resonate for feminists today.
The one-day conference began with a plenary lecture by Professor Jay Kleinberg from Brunel University, author of History of Women in the Americas and editor of the journal History of Women in the Americas. Kleinberg’s plenary was crucial in conveying to the audience the importance of Friedan’s text in the early stages of the Second Wave of Feminism. At the same time she explored key themes that were repeatedly visited during the day, emphasising the importance of building on Friedan’s text by taking into account the wide range of experiences of women throughout history. Their experiences were by no means uniform and were shaped by race, age, sexuality and socio-economic status. In the key note Kleinberg criticised the exclusion of working class and non white women from Friedan’s text, and argued that we should not accept Friedan’s ‘picture of women as passive victims.’
The day was split into four panels: ‘The Perfect Wife?’, ‘Challenging patriarchies through writing’, ‘Critiques of Friedan: political and personal identities’ and ‘Critiques of Friedan: race and class.’ The day aimed to offer an opportunity to explore The Feminine Mystique alongside broader discussions of women and employment.
After the keynote, Caitriona Beaumont began with a paper on ‘What is a Wife?’ She discussed negotiations of domesticity in Britain before the publication of Friedan’s text, demonstrating how the Mother’s Union, the Women’s Institutes and the Town Women’s Guilds challenged notions of ‘frilly housewives’ offering women the opportunity of public engagement. Rae Ritchie’s paper was particularly fascinating and made a great contribution to the a key aim of the day, which was to present a more nuanced understanding of women’s experiences of domesticity and femininity. Ritchie used horoscopes to complicate Friedan’s assertion of the problems of women’s magazines by drawing attention to the range of their content, even if there was still a focus on domesticity.
Papers presented over the day as a whole were wide ranging in scope and geographical location. Dawn Marie Gibson presented her research on the multifaceted ways in which women utilized the Muhammad Speaks newspaper to embrace, explain and challenge gender norms in the organization. John Howard and Elidh Hall’s papers focused on attempts to challenge patriarchies through the writings of authors Isabel Alvarez and Ana Castillo.
The conference had two speakers from the USA. Elizabeth E. Sharp presented an exciting contemporary case study of the experience of new wives in West Texas. The paper raised pertinent themes for today’s women and sparked a lively debate. There was particular interest in Sharp’s point that 90% of women in the USA still change their surname if they get married. The resulting discussion explored the reasons behind this, citing children as the key motivation for name changing.
The second speaker from the USA, Gwen Jordan, revealed how Betty Friedan’s work was understood in her home town of Peoria in Middle America. Her paper was intriguingly called ‘Who is Betty...?’ and she discussed the lack of awareness of Friedan’s book in her hometown. Alice Lilly’s paper on the US-based Aid to Families with Dependent Children Programme continued the themes Kleinberg had introduced, but she also provided an insight into Friedan’s shifting views in her later works. Lilly demonstrated how Friedan's later texts on welfare showed sophistication and tempered some of her earlier ideas. She contextualised her paper by examining how tensions over race influenced women’s treatment within the programme .
After this series of stimulating papers, the day ended with a roundtable and a wine reception allowing the opportunity for speakers and conference attendees to reflect on the day.
The roundtable brought together the themes of the panels and generated a vibrant debate. The group as a whole tended to view Freidan’s text was an important introduction to second wave feminist theory, and the pertinence of many of the same issues today across the world, but were agreed on the absolute necessity to place The Feminine Mystique into its correct historical context and to draw from this, providing a more nuanced view.
Helen Glew led a discussion on the representation of Friedan in present-day media and the group reflected on the influence her work had had on academic and popular audiences. This raised various issues: the highly personal nature of individual women’s relationships to feminism, the specific problems facing female academics, and the current preoccupation within the general media and in British and American society as a whole with feminism. Examples were raised such as Elle magazines recent attempts to ‘rebrand’ feminism. Other debates centred around employment, the development of women’s organisations and networks since the 1960s, and the gendering of children in their upbringing through ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ toys. The evening finished with a dinner, and conference attendees and speakers all agreed that the day was a wonderful success.
Zoe Thomas, Bedford Centre Co-ordinator
Click here for the Conference Programme.
Conference organisers: Helen Glew (University of Westminster), Jane Hamlett (RHUL), Sinead McEneaney (St. Mary’s University College) and Rachel Ritchie (Brunel University).
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