Ada Lovelace Day - Betty Freidan

The goal of Ada Lovelace day is to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science, and perhaps to shine light on those women whose accomplishments have been forgotten, ignored or lost along the way. I want to celebrate Ada Lovelace day by writing about a woman whom I had never heard of a year ago, but whose legacy I grew up with, and whose book has given me more insight and inspiration than any other I have ever read. This is a woman without whom many other women would never have made their contributions to science and technology, and one who has renewed my confidence and faith in myself and in humanity’s wonderful capacity to learn and to change. I want to celebrate Ada Lovelace day by celebrating Betty Freidan and her monumental book The Feminine Mystique.

The Feminine Mystique, which I discovered thanks to Audible, is an epic book which chronicles Betty Freidan’s exploration of “the problem that has no name”, the depression felt by women who did not pursue the challenging careers they were educated for and capable of because of a cultural expectation to marry and stay home. The book resonated with me tremendously: my grandmothers are the women she was speaking of, my parents’ generation was the one that reacted against it, and so many of my personal experiences fell in to place upon reading the book. While many of the circumstances described in the book are, thankfully, no longer in existence, the book is still tremendously relevant and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to read it.

The book is worth reading as a piece of history, illuminating many of the cultural influences which led up to the postwar epoch currently encapsulated in the TV series Mad Men. It’s worth reading as a tremendous exercise in rhetoric: it’s exhaustively researched and beautifully argued. It’s a fascinating case study for philosophers of science, to observe how some branches of sociology were able to ignore contradictory evidence and uncritically support the idea that ultimate fulfilment for women could only be found in the role of “wife and mother”. The slow unsettling of psychology to the point of realization that being “well-adjusted” to a damaging situation might not be such a good thing is tremendously interesting and informative. It is a book about how social coercion works, and how advertising works. This is a book which sets the stage for discussions of work-life balance, personal growth and the consumer society. For anyone who doubts that one book can change the world, this is the counterexample. For anyone who wants to write one, this is the canonical example.

At a time when we are, individually and collectively, facing the challenges that will determine our future, this is a book that we cannot afford to forget. A skill we sorely lack is to be able to learn from the experiences of others, particularly those who have gone before us. We don’t have time to make every mistake ourselves, we don’t have time to reinvent every wheel. Our cultural and scientific legacy, the wisdom of our parents and ancestors, can be hard for us to relate to and internalize. We see its faults, its flaws, and how much smarter we are now. We forget that we are only able to be smart because those before us had the courage to make mistakes, and we forget the much greater legacy of accumulated wisdom that has not been overturned, which is so deeply ingrained that it can never be visible to us, but which was bought for us by untold generations. I remember my grade school textbook talking about Lamarck and ridiculing his giraffe necks. He was the fool who got it wrong. But not only did Darwin build on (and praise) Lamarck’s broader work, now that we have a more subtle awareness of the processes of life, the study of epigenetics is proving that, in some cases, Lamarckism does prevail. We are not finished learning.

When we do manage to truly connect with the past, or with some other Other, we so often find ourselves saying “how very like us they are”. This photograph, for example, would be easy to dissociate ourselves from if it were, like most of those taken in its day, in black and white. The fact that it is in colour makes it seem so recent, and without any obvious clues as to date, we can relate to this Dad and his daughter as though they were from 2010, not 1940.

Relating to the past does not mean uncritically accepting everything we read, nor does it mean wasting our time rehashing the same long-disproved theories. But having an open mind to the past and the Other gives us access to reportage, ideas and experiences which may have been lost to us, and which may give us evidence to change our minds. While reading The Feminine Mystique, I gained a completely new perspective on a huge piece of social history. However, when I came to the one glaring flaw I found in the book, Betty Freidan’s uncritical acceptance of Freud’s explanation for homosexuality, right after she had beautifully shredded Freud’s analysis of women, I was not disposed in the slightest to accept her point of view on this. Freidan was, of course, writing at a time when the DSM still defined homosexuality as a mental illness, but for whatever reason she did not perceive the similarities between psychology telling women that careers could never be fulfilling for them despite evidence to the contrary, and the well-known “fact” that homosexuality was a mental illness, despite evidence to the contrary.

Learning requires empathy. Pick up any good book on negotiation, sales or personal relationships (I recommend this one) and it will tell you that you need to start from the other person’s perspective. You need to “meet them where they are” before you can “bring them to where you want them to be”. When trying to connect, to give yourself an opportunity to learn from the experience of others, you need to reverse this role and place yourself where they are, so you can hear what they say in their context. You need to bring humility to your listening, to allow that there may once have been a world in which this person’s experience and perspective made sense. Then you can hear their story, truly listen and understand their experience. And, with this identification, you may be able to apply what you have heard.

Empathy is one of the greatest gifts we can give to another human, and one of the most powerful tools we ourselves have in life. What empathy does not mean is that we agree with or even accept the validity of that which we are trying to understand. If you want to truly understand the rise of national socialism, an important part of making sure it never happens again, you need to empathize with an unemployed worker in a defeated country being promised a way to feed his family and to feel pride in himself and his country. That doesn’t mean you agree. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. You don’t set aside your critical facilities, but without empathy, your critical facilities have nothing on which they can operate.

When teenagers don’t listen to their parents’ well-meant advice, it is because the teenager doesn’t feel that the advice is relevant. The teenager cannot empathize with the parent’s experience, therefore it’s only sensible for the teenager to conclude that the advice is irrelevant. The teenager may well be right, times may have changed so much that the parent’s experience is not going to be helpful. Or, times may not have changed that much, but the parent is so different in temperament that the issues that parent faced are not problems for the child, and vice versa. With the past, with the Other, we are so often like teenagers. Our challenge is to outgrow the know-it-all phase, so we can draw on our cultural inheritance. A smart teenager will develop a critical ability to evaluate advice from a parent and to put it to use where it makes sense to them, but also to live their own life and make their own mistakes.

There are many examples of phenomena reported in the early scientific and medical journals which have been ignored for decades because they didn’t fit within the prevailing theories, some have been rediscovered and are helping inform more advanced or different theories, doubtless many more are buried in primary source material waiting to be re-read and rehabilitated.

I hope that our children will have the opportunity to look back on our faults, our flaws, and bemuse themselves at how much smarter they are. But not, I hope, to ridicule our stupidity, as we still tend to ridicule the past. I doubt our children will survive for very long if our generation doesn’t take the maturing step of approaching the past with curiosity and humility. We have too much to learn in too short a time to start from scratch. Our challenge is to live within our means, and most of this battle will take place on the inside, in each of our hearts and minds as we learn to embrace the true joys and meaning in life and grow beyond the fears that drive us to unsupportable excess.

The Feminine Mystique is relevant in itself because it deals with the internal and external forces promoting consumerism, the science behind what is likely to be a satisfying life and career, and what it means to love and respect yourself and your family. Issues and questions we are still exploring in our lives today. The Feminine Mystique is also important as a symbol of our willingness to overcome our reactionary attitude to the past.

My parents’ generation who married in the United States in the 70s and 80s reacted in large part against the pigeonholing of women in the home. There were very few stay-at-home mothers among my childhood peers. The generation of The Feminine Mystique who married in the 50s and 60s was, according to Betty Freidan, reacting against the disruption caused by two world wars and a great depression, seeking solace in a nostalgic fantasy of what a “home life” should be, and taking the opportunity to unfairly blame social ills on the first wave of feminism which made such monumental progress around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century.

My generation was also one of custody arrangements and latchkeys, as our parents divorced in overwhelming numbers. My generation, on growing up, has been tempted to react against this. To give up careers in the hope of staying happily married. To revert, in short, to the world of The Feminine Mystique. To react against our parents, but to ignore the lessons of our grandparents. To learn from neither. To reinvent the world. Again.

This is the cycle we need to overcome. To stop reacting, to start learning and synthesizing. To interpret our world with an informed historical context, instead of just an ideological reaction against whatever bad experience was most recent. Communism was bad, so capitalism must be the answer. To recognize that most dichotomies are false. To have humility for how little we really know, and appreciation for how much we do know. To accept that, in theoretical physics as in life, it’s dangerous to say “we know almost everything and the rest is just details and just one or two loose ends so we’re basically done here”. The world is hard, subtle is beautiful. We’ll never figure it all out, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Now, with our parents remarrying and frequently finding the happiness and fulfilment that eluded many of our grandparents, we can choose to learn from them instead of reacting against them. We also have our chance to learn about achieving profound social change from those who did so in the past, or we can simply dismiss the heroic struggle of Betty Freidan and so many in her generation, of all they learned and all they accomplished, by our unwillingness to look beyond the absurdly tainted and distorted label of “feminism”. It is so easy to mock this word from our safe perspective, to forget the sacrifice and effort it took to achieve a society where most women are now free to take their rights for granted, to fail to recognize how effectively this legacy has been unfairly tarnished by its enemies. To ignore the real call to arms of the book, which is that each person must create a unique identity for themselves, and build meaningful relationships with others.

Back to Betty Freidan herself, she was a personal source of inspiration to many individual women, she also founded a movement which changed the lives of millions of people. She did this by the most basic and profound science, being curious about the world and asking questions, and rigorously following where they led. She spent 10 years writing her book, and the rest of her life acting on what she had discovered. She had the courage to walk away from a safe but false identity, to create her true self, to dedicate herself to a difficult and thankless but personally meaningful journey, and she provided the means for many others to follow her. Her life’s work is a tremendous gift to us all.

Andrea 24 Mar 2010

Hi Ana:

I have nothing to add, but congratuilations. This is a nicely well thought out post.

I agree on the reactionism and how society affects our lives, and I also wonder how life will be in the future.

I used to think that I wanted to stay out of idealistics because I thought I could preach by example kinda thing, however, I think it's necesary to do both, to work hard but also speak about issues and try to solve them in a smart manner.

Thanks for the insiration