Essays and Criticism
Friedan's Work and the Women in Grace Paley's Short Stories
Although there has been recent criticism of Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, there is no doubt, even in the minds of her harshest critics, that her book had such a profound impact on the female population during the 1960s that it has been credited with initiating the second wave of feminism in the United States. In order to better comprehend how The Feminine Mystique had such a profound impact on women of that era, it is important to understand who the mid-twentieth-century American woman was. Although it is impossible to gather information on every female and ask each of them to recall what it was like to be a woman in that turbulent era, it is feasible to look to one of the leading literary voices of that time to discern what her female characters were doing and thinking about.
With this objective in mind, the first author who comes to mind is Grace Paley, a contemporary of Friedan's, who made a point of writing strictly from a woman's perspective, discussing issues that were pertinent to the American female. She was one of the first American women writers to do so. She wrote during at time when female issues were considered worthy only of a kitchen-table discussion over coffee. She lived in a world that was completely dominated by men, in the home, in the workplace, and in the field of publishing. Yet, she had the confidence to compose her work with the highest literary skill that she was capable of and to write about what she knew best—women's daily lives and routines of the 1950s, the same topic that Friedan addresses.
Friedan interviewed many women in the course of her research for The Feminine Mystique, why add yet another voice to the mix? The answer is simple. It's one of interest. Friedan's examples support her thesis, but Paley's characters offer background color. Friedan's women respond to specific questions, while Paley's go about their business, offering readers brief glimpses into their lives. Friedan's writing dramatically changed the course of many women's lives, and it is the women as depicted in Paley's short stories that she most affected. Paley's characters, in her collection of short stories called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1960), were conceived before the publication of Friedan's 1963 classic. They consist of both formally educated women and those who are not formally educated. They are housewives and mothers who, at most, struggle with part-time jobs. There is little mention of professional businesswomen. Paley's female characters therefore represent the epitome of Friedan's targeted audience. To listen to them is to hear the voices of the women who most often found themselves concealed under the veil of what Friedan refers to as the feminine mystique.
To begin with, readers should first understand what Friedan means when she writes about feminine mystique. For her it is the belief that was popular in the early part of the twentieth century that stated that the major source of women's frustrations was their own forgetfulness of what constituted femininity. Women, especially according to Sigmund Freud's basic tenet, were often found to be envious of men, so they tried to be like men. In attempting to do so, women denied their own natural instincts, which were ‘‘sexual passivity,’’ submission to men, and their need to nurture. These traits, according to social propaganda at that time, were best developed in the role of wife and mother. Women should not worry about obtaining a college degree nor about the subsequent challenge of finding and advancing a professional career. Further education and involvement in the broader concept of society encompassed a man's world. For women to want to be involved outside of the home was testimony to their jealousy of men. ‘‘The new mystique makes the housewife-mothers, who never had a chance to be anything else, the model for all women,’’ Friedan writes. This model confined women ‘‘to cooking, cleaning, washing, bearing children—into a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity.’’
In the first short story of Paley's collection, her female protagonist is sitting on the front steps of her local library when her ex-husband happens to stroll by. She says, ‘‘Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.’’ With this simple statement, Paley acknowledges the feelings that women of her generation held in terms of defining themselves. They became so consumed with playing out their roles as wives that they were left with no concept of themselves. These were the women who bought the ‘‘new mystique,’’ who modeled themselves on the 1950s definition of femininity. By turning their backs on their education and further exploration of self, their husband became their lives. They lived through their husbands' promotions, defeats, and challenges in the world outside their homes. In the same short story, the woman continues her brief dialogue with her ex-husband, who tells her that he is finally going to buy that sailboat he has always wanted. He still has dreams, he tells her. ‘‘But as for you, it's too late. You'll always want nothing,’’ he says. This represents the problems and...
(The entire section is 2160 words.)