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How This Feminist Author Broke The Silence On Women’s Mental Health In The ’60s

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Whether it’s ‘Mad Men‘ or ‘Desperate Housewives’, you’d have noticed a recurring pattern in television and film—unhappy suburban housewives. And there’s a history to it, too. The 1950s and ’60s, like the eras before it, were not kind to women. Those who ventured out into the professional sphere were having a tough time anyway, what with the rampant misogyny in the workplace, but those relegated to the domestic sphere, as housewives, were having an equally shitty time. With ridiculous gender roles and cultural stereotypes thrust upon them, limiting their sexual, professional, social and physical freedoms—it was only a matter of time until a breaking point was reached, and that breaking point came in the form of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’.

With a specialization in psychology, Betty Friedan brought in a new perspective to the women’s rights movement—by choosing to focus how patriarchy affected women’s mental health, which many of the existing feminist movements of the time hadn’t addressed. Perhaps it was this very fact which resonated with middle class women (especially housewives) so greatly, who, through this book, found that they were not alone in their predicament.

Betty Friedan, One of The First ‘Radfems’

Friedan’s engagement with politics and social justice issues began very early in life. As a teenager, she was active in Marxist and Anti-semitic politics (she was Jewish, and had lived through the Holocaust era); and, later, in college, she wrote extensively—strongly expressing opinions against war propaganda, and for women’s rights. Writing prolifically, and unapologetically advocating feminist issues, she became one of the first radical feminists, or ‘radfems’ as we call it today. However, her crowning achievement was her founding of The National Organization for Women, or NOW, an organization which aimed at bringing women “into the mainstream of American society now [in] fully equal partnership with men“, or, in other words, an official girl gang to smash the patriarchy. During her tenure at NOW, it scored some major victories in its battle against gender discrimination in the workplace, including convincing President Johnson to ban gender-based discrimination in federal jobs and to ban sex-segregated job ads.

Betty Draper in ‘Mad Men’.

The Feminine Mystique‘ (published in 1963), however, approached women’s rights from a more internal perspective—through psychology, and research.

In 1957, Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion (and we thought college reunions were only about booze and dancing!); and the results, in which she found that many of them were unhappy with their lives as housewives, prompted her to begin research for ‘The Feminine Mystique’. Soon, she took the research further and interviewed a lot more women in a similar fashion, and found that the results were startling indeed. Thus, ‘The Feminine Mystique‘ was born.

1: In Which She Talks “Unhappy” Marriages

“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover 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?'”

In the very introduction, Friedan talks about the ‘problem with no name’—the widespread depression among women in the 1950s and ’60s, and sets the tone for the rest of the text. She talks about how insidiously patriarchy conditions women to think that their ultimate sense of fulfilment lies in getting married, having children, and living that perfect white-picket-fence existence; but, once the woman finally is in that situation and realizes how inherently messed up this ideal is, and how her identity is ultimately getting reduced to her utilitarian maintenance of the home, her mental health goes for a toss. The conditioning goes so deep that she fails to realize her own depression, and fails to see that it’s ultimately a by-product of the ridiculous gender roles forced upon her (something which Woolf has also talked about). Friedan urges women to think beyond this, to pursue careers and actions that are independent of the men of their lives, and tells women that they can be fulfilled and happy without men. Reading this in 2016, we’re probably thinking ‘but that’s so obvious!’. But it wasn’t, not at all, in the ’50s and ’60s, with middle class women who were culturally conditioned to give up their personal happiness and liberties in favour of their husbands. Friedan cites examples of how even the most intelligent and promising women dropped out of college early to marry, afraid that if they waited too long or became too educated, they would not be able to attract a husband. I’m sure, at this, you’re thinking what I’m thinking (“what the…?”), but this was, sadly, true.

2: In Which She Calls Out Sexism In Popular Culture

Friedan draws upon her extensive research and shows how the editorial decisions concerning women’s magazines were being made mostly by men, who produced cultural material which depicted women as either happy housewives or unhappy career-persons, thus creating the “feminine mystique” — the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. In one of the most powerful quotes from the book, she says:

Over and over again, stories in women’s magazines insist that women can know fulfillment only at the moment of giving birth to a child. They deny the years when she can no longer look forward to giving birth, even if she repeats the act over and over again. In the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.

This brilliantly sums up how deeply the popular culture of the time (and even today) affected the way women saw themselves, and their role in society, and how much damage this ‘feminine mystique’ actually causes.

3: The Real Housewives of Suburban America

Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, and finds that they are actually not fulfilled by their housework, just extremely busy with it. Her inference is that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill all the time they have, because ‘the feminine mystique’ has taught women that this is their role, and when they are not particularly involved in completing these tasks, their identities will become meaningless and obsolete.
If that’s not dark and messed up, I don’t know what is.

Friedan also discusses how, due to the depression within these women, the children they raise also imbibe these traits, which ultimately affects their emotional growth. “When the mother lacks a self“, Friedan notes, “she often tries to live through her children, causing the children to lose their own sense of themselves as separate human beings.”

To sum up her arguments, Friedan discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, expected to find their identity through their sexual role alone. But, she challenges this, and says that women need meaningful work just as men do, to achieve self-actualization—which is the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Betty and Her Bitter Butter

There is no doubt that this text was revolutionary for when it came out—reaching out to and resonating with a large number of women (Friedan got looooads of fanmail from her readers), and helping them break free from their patriarchal conditioning. But Betty’s feminist butter was kinda bitter—because it was not inclusive. She focused only on cisgender, heterosexual, middle or upper class white women who already enjoyed a considerable amount of privilege (even though their struggles with patriarchy were very real). The thing is, she was also living in a time when the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam, and black women were suffering from a whole different kind of oppression. Further, the ’60s was also the time when queer politics and countercultures were becoming visible and prominent and were demanding for the decriminalizing of homosexuality. In this context, to not take any of these movements into account was more than a little bit not cool, especially when she was running a national feminist organization. It’s not just us, but many other feminist critics have had a similar problem with her work.

In Conclusion: Important But Not Intersectional

While talking about this text recently, we came up with a phrase which summed it up pretty well: ‘Great text, but bad feminism’.

And that’s exactly what you need to know about ‘The Feminine Mystique’. It is the definitive text of Second Wave Feminism, sheds light on some really terrifying patriarchal bullshit that was going down at the time, and has legitimately led to the emancipation of women from oppressive domestic duties; but what it fails to do is include all kinds of women, and acknowledge that patriarchy and the ‘feminine mystique’ manifests itself in different ways for different women. So, let’s appreciate what needs to be appreciated about this text, but also keep in mind what it fails to achieve.

To read more from our ‘Decoding A Feminist Text’ series, click here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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