‘As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?” – The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan (1963)
It is now four decades since Betty Friedan wrote these simple words. Since then there have been 12 Presidential elections — we are now on number 13 — and as a cast of relatively well-to-do, senior, white men (Michele Bachman aside) line up to present their candidacy, we must ask ourselves: what has changed?
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and his wife Ann this week (the US is surely the only place where men called Wolf and Mitt can have a conversation and nobody questions how ridiculous their names are). This is what Ann had to say (skip to 8.00 in that link);
“It was also Mitt that got me through those really tough years raising five really quite rambunctious and at times quite naughty boys, where he would call home and remind me when I was quite exasperated while he was travelling that what I was doing was more important than what he was doing. My job, in his eyes, was more valuable than his.”
The first three questions asked of Ann by Wolf were:
‘Do you ever think about being First Lady of the United States?’
‘You haven’t said I’d like to be like X or Y, like Hilary Clinton or Laura Bush?’
‘Did you like being First Lady of Massachusetts?’
With opening questions such as these, we are not far beyond Cindarella- or Jane Eyre-esque aspirations whereby a woman’s goals cannot be much more than to find the right man. The training of passivity in women is a continuing process, one in which acquiescence to male domination is often done unconsciously. For Michele Bachmann, such submission is both conscious and good:
“My husband said, now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law. Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that?
But the Lord said, ‘Be submissive. Wives you are to be submissive to your husband.’ And so we moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I went to William and Mary Law School there, for a post-doctorate degree in tax law. And I pursued this course of study.
“Never had a tax course in my background, never had a desire for it, but by faith, I was going to be faithful to what I felt God was calling me to do through my husband.”
The image of the woman as mother, as wife, living through her husband and their offspring, through her children, possibly even giving up her own dreams for that – is something that is often portrayed as a noble act. Blind selflessness is seen as a virtue. A strong independent streak is also lauded, but only because the woman is independent yet female, instead of independent and female, or just independent. The independent woman who does not also conform to societal expectations is viewed as dangerous.
The most obvious extreme example of this, at least in the popular imagination, must be Diana, whose efforts to feign a real loving interest in her husband were ultimately abandoned. Jackie Kennedy described her own marriage to JFK as “Victorian or Asiatic”, meaning that independence was neither expected nor sought.
There is no overt anti-feminism in society, not because sex equality has been achieved, but because there is practically no feminist spark left, at least not in the mainstream. Of course, if it ever happens that we have a potential First Man in the White House, he’ll no doubt have to be portrayed as uber-masculine with a sort of comic book macho quality. On the campaign he will be shown going rock climbing and lifting heavy things for no apparent reason before kicking back with a bottle of beer and playing catch with his son. There’s a sort of inevitability about it.