Conversations With Men About The Feminine Mystique

Recently, the feminist movement celebrated an anniversary. The Feminine Mystique was published 50 years ago in May and that brought the book back in to the limelight. It has resurfaced as a buzzword in headlines with politicians and current crusaders as I enjoy peaceful moments quietly in the fading light, rocking my son to sleep. He rests his head against my chest and I hug him close to me and tell him how much I love him. As he snuggles close, I am struck by the perfection of this time with him. I am also often struck by the weight of responsibility to raise this little boy to be a good, honest, fair, and compassionate man. How will I do it? What does it mean anyway, to be a good man? Is it universal? What can we, as women, do to make sure we are raising good men? And I don’t just mean we as mothers. I mean as sisters, girlfriends, aunts, cousins, grandmothers, neighbors, teachers…what can we do to raise men we can stand along side as equals?

What is the feminine mystique?

Aside from a book published in 1963 by Betty Friedan, it is an idea—or perhaps more accurately, an ideal—created by men about women, according to Friedan. The feminine mystique painted women as happy housewives who were happiest when married, mothering, and managing the household. Friedan speculated that this wasn’t true at all, and while her book has received criticism over the years, I don’t think many would argue that her point was entirely off the mark. I love my husband. I love my son. I love that I am afforded the luxury of raising my son at home. I do not look in the mirror each morning and think of myself as a doting wife and mother who’s sole desire in life is to have dinner ready at 5:00pm sharp. As a stay-at-home mom, I don’t want my son to grow up thinking, “this is it?!” when he looks at me…or any woman. I want my son to understand that I am an educated, independent, resourceful woman who actively engages in the world, and I want him to be an educated, independent, resourceful man who actively engages women in the world as such. But how do I do that?

Turns out, some basic building blocks can go a long way to making a good man. Helping a boy get in touch his emotions, empathy, respect, self-esteem, and affection will make them more likely to be caring, sensitive, open and honest. Teaching boys to acknowledge and deal with their emotions makes them more likely to share their thoughts rather than bottling them up. Empathizing with boys makes them more able to understand how those around them feel. Demonstrating respect for others makes them more likely to demonstrate respect as they grow up. Filling them with self-esteem and rewarding them for their hard work and effort will make them more likely to feel competent and worthy. Showing boys your affection—both for them and other loved ones and friends—will make them more likely to understand the value of affection…and appreciate it.

It is also important for boys to have male role models. A caring, supportive, involved father is the most important role model in a boy’s life, but having other good male role models offers even more support. If you want to raise a man who will value and support women’s issues, surround him with men who already do! Children—boys and girls alike—model the behavior of those around them. If we want to raise a generation of men who dismiss the Feminine Mystique in favor of having a conversation with women and supporting women, then we need to model that behavior now.

Father’s Day is a great day to be having a conversation about how men and women’s issues intersect and what we can do to raise the next generation of men and women to be equally attuned to each other. Girls, let’s face it.  We spend a lot of time talking to ourselves, preaching to the choir, and excluding men from the conversation. But if we want men to treat us with respect and value our concerns, shouldn’t we include them in the conversation? Friedan even said as much in the second edition of The Feminine Mystique.

We could look for national figures that are supporting women’s rights and herald them for their efforts, but I argue that we must start at a grass roots level first. Before we think about the high-profile men who are supporting the women’s movement and go praising those men who have stood up on a national stage to support women’s rights, let’s praise our husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends. Let’s thank them for the conversations we’ve had at home every night. Let’s thank them for their role in raising our children. Let’s thank them for their support as we balance careers, families, and ambitions. They don’t travel the country making speeches or write books or give interviews. They do much more important work. They read bedtime stories to our children. They coach little league, youth soccer, and youth football. They can be coaxed into tea parties with little girls. They play board games with just the right mix of letting our children succeed and teaching our children how to follow the rules. If you want to see gender equality at work, watch the men in your life with the children in your life. I guarantee that the fathers, uncles, and grandfathers in this world love their little boys and little girls equally, and they want the best for them. Thank them for their contribution and applaud their efforts. Nothing makes an eager enthusiast like praise and recognition. 

Remember that it isn’t a conversation if one side is doing all the talking. So long as women exclude men from the central conversation about women’s rights, men will not be part of the conversation and some form of the Feminine Mystique will persist. When we open the conversation to the men in our lives and they realize we want them to contribute, we’ll be making real progress.

by Caroline Johnson


How strong is your grass roots conversation?