Friedan marks the first-wave feminist movement—the fight for suffrage a century earlier—as women’s first collective search for an identity. Feminists had been vilified and still were in Friedan’s time. Friedan notes how her contemporaries viewed feminists as “neurotic victims of penis envy” who “denied their very nature as women.”
Society maligned women’s pursuit of political power by accusing them of being “unnatural” and of secretly wanting to be men. Thus, the desire of women to vote was portrayed as an attempt to usurp a “masculine” power that only rightfully belonged to men.
Women, during the nineteenth-century, often existed as either childlike wives or as the objects of male attention, like dolls. Many women had no subjectivity. They were confined to the home, but they had a human need to grow—a need that was acknowledged in men, whose place was growing in the world in the 19th-century.
The feminine mystique had discouraged women from growing into fully self-actualized human beings. Their co-dependency made them better wives. Society also convinced women that it was better to be adored than to be given full humanity.
The image of the man-hating, sex-starved spinster contrasted with the reality of many feminists who were in loving and passionate marriages. The only image of “a full and free human being” that existed was male. So, if a woman pursued her rights as a human being, was she trying to be a man or asserting her humanity? This was a question explored by Henrik Ibsen in his play, “A Doll’s House,” in which his protagonist, Nora, insists that her life with her husband, Torvald, has not been worthwhile, though he has been kind to her. She has only been “a doll wife” and their home has merely been a “playroom.” She is unfit to raise children because, in many ways, she is still one herself. Her solution is to assert her identity as a human being who must leave “the doll house” and learn who she is.
The popular image of feminists was designed to discourage other women from joining their political cause, out of fear of joining in the supposed unhappiness of lonely, “sex-starved” women. In Ibsen’s play, Nora’s decision to leave her home—or the idea of home that was constructed for her—is an attempt to find out who she is outside of the role that has been assigned to her. The play’s conclusion marks the first moment in which the character makes a decision for her own well-being. Traditionally, only men made such personal decisions, while women were “other-directed.”
Historically, women’s struggles for freedom have usually coincided with other moments of political upheaval. Thomas Paine, a spokesman for the Revolutionary War, spoke on the conditions of women in 1775. Women who were refused seats at an anti-slavery convention in London organized the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.
Struggles for women’s rights have always been struggles for human rights, though they are frequently not seen as the same thing. The perpetual oppression of women during revolutionary moments in history indicates the lengths to which societies go to keep women as a second-class.
Feminists faced slander from the press and from clergymen who accused them of “violating the God-given nature of women.” When this did not work, they were accused of being adulterous and supporting “free love.”
To force them back into their traditional roles, women were accused of being unnatural or immoral. Both views were informed by religious and social ideas that discouraged equality between the sexes.
One New York assemblymen said that it was not enough that the women had “unsexed” themselves, they were also seeking to “unsex” other women and undo laws from the “higher power” which made men “representative of the race” and women partners at his side, joined to him in matrimony. Feminists were, thus “unnatural monsters” who would reverse “God-given” male dominance and make slaves of men.
The assemblyman did not accuse women of wanting to be men, but of becoming something with no sex at all, hence “unnatural monsters.” Feminism so threatened the status quo that it created an image of women that upset people’s basic understanding of human behavior.
Some feminists did try to emulate men, sometimes cutting their hair in men’s fashions. It was part of their rejection of conventional womanhood, which caused some to reject marriage and motherhood. In performing these acts, they were not only trying to become different women, but also “complete human beings.”
Women imitated men because masculinity provided the only model for individual expression that they knew. Their exploration of difference led them to break with gender conventions and explore androgyny, or the expression of both masculine and feminine characteristics.
Lucy Stone had the reputation of “a man-eating fury,” a label often given to feminists. She saved her own income from teaching to go Oberlin College, but practiced public speaking in the woods because “girls were forbidden to speak in public.” Soon, she began lecturing on the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. Though she also believed that marriage, for women, was a state of slavery, she married Henry Blackwell.
Lucy Stone diverged from traditional femininity by being ambitious, self-sufficient, and politically-engaged. Because she lived in a society that would now allow women to speak for themselves, she, like many feminists of the time, found her voice through joining the abolitionist movement.
Most feminists resisted early marriage and did not marry until they had found identity and purpose as abolitionists and crusaders for women’s rights. Lucy Stone did not take her husband’s name. Some, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Blackwell, did not marry at all. Despite accusations that they were engaging in “unwomanly” behavior, they continued to speak out for slaves. By doing so, they learned to speak out for themselves.
Involvement in the abolitionist movement taught women how to speak about their own political concerns. It also engaged them with the concept of freedom. To feel freer from social expectations, they made unconventional decisions in their personal lives. Retaining one’s own name was a statement of asserting individuality within marriage.
In the South, where women were kept at home and had little to do, as a result of slavery, the feminine mystique remained intact. In the North, women who took part in the Underground Railroad or who worked in other ways to free slaves “were never the same again.” Women who moved west as pioneers were “almost equal” to men from the beginning. Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote.
Work, whether it was for a political cause or to settle new territory, gave women a sense of purpose. In the South, there was either no work to do or the wish of not having to do work. However, a woman’s right and ability to work demonstrated her equality.
Feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton were usually educated women who disliked the “housewife’s drudgery.” They were not, Friedan insists, “man-eaters.” The fight was not against men, but for women’s rights.
Intelligent women, as feminists typically were, tended to be bored by housework, which kept them home and did not challenge them. They did not dislike men, only their limited roles.
Julia Ward Howe studied every field of interest to her, and she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in secret “because her husband believed that her life should be devoted to him and their six children.” She became involved in the suffragist movement in 1868 when she met Lucy Stone (whom she found to be “sweet,” “earnest,” and, indeed, “womanly”) and realized that she had believed in a false image of Stone.
In her endless curiosity, Howe discovered feminism and realized that the popular image of feminists like Stone was constructed by men like her husband who wanted women to conform to the feminine mystique. Being a feminist did not mean abandoning womanhood. Rather, it meant defining one’s own purpose as a woman.
The notion that feminists were “taking the pants off men” occurred to their detractors when feminists began to wear bloomers. The bloomers were still a dress, but they were more comfortable than the heavy “half a dozen skirts and petticoats” that women usually wore. Bloomers made it easier for women to move around and they often wore them to do housework. When feminists started to wear them in public as a symbol of their emancipation, they were ridiculed in newspapers.
The wearing of bloomers was a step toward breaking away from social constructions of femininity. In their desire for greater personal freedom, women also wanted more freedom of physical movement, which their petticoats and skirts did not permit. The wearing of bloomers also indicated that women were less concerned about external perceptions of them.
Susan B. Anthony and other feminists petitioned the New York State Assembly for the right of married women to own property. They gained 6,000 signatures, but they were met with mockery by the representatives who insisted that women had advantages over men, such as the best seat in a carriage. Others saw the measure as yet another attempt to emasculate men.
The assemblymen believed that expressions of chivalry showed that women were prized in society. They expected women to be content with gestures whose purpose was to make them feel special. However, women did not want to be “special.” Their desire for property rights demonstrated an interest in being equal.
Sojourner Truth, a former slave, gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, which undermined the “image of empty gentility” which contributed to women’s oppression. The Lowell mill girls—factory workers who protested their terrible work conditions—also challenged that image.
Women who had been slaves or those who worked in sub-standard conditions were most likely to challenge conventions of femininity due to the ways in which their race or class placed them outside of middle-class feminine ideals.
The battle to emancipate women was stoked in the nineteenth-century by the battle to free the slaves, while, in the twentieth-century, it was stoked by “the battles of social reform,” including strikes against the horrid work conditions in factories. During the temperance movement, feminists sometimes used messages, such as “save femininity” and “save the home,” to shut down saloons. Brewers who depended on the cheap labor of underpaid women and children lobbied against women’s suffrage. Southern congressmen pointed out that the right of women to vote would also include black women.
Suffragists used stereotypes about femininity in their favor to advocate for political causes, such as eliminating the legal sale of liquor. For brewers, their activism threatened profits. Brewers were hostile toward feminists due to the economic threat they presented. Southern politicians worried about the expansion of the black vote, as well as the possibility of white women abandoning traditional notions of femininity, both of which they saw as threatening white male power.
In fifty years, American women “conducted 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters,” 480 campaigns for suffrage amendments on ballots, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to adopt suffrage planks in their platforms, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt planks for suffrage, and “19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.” By the end, the feminist movement was not merely comprised of a handful of women, but of millions of women with husbands, homes, and children who devoted as much time as they could to the cause.
Feminists had been successful politically and also in debunking the myth that active, politically-engaged women truly wanted to be men. None of those who had husbands and children abandoned those relationships. Instead, their commitments to their families seemed to inspire them to be more engaged with fostering change.
The negative image of feminists was created and promoted by business interests who opposed women’s suffrage state-by-state, even going as far as to buy and steal votes.
For women born after 1920, the feminist movement was history. In the 1930s and 1940s, women who fought for human rights concerned themselves with workers’ rights, rights for black people, and the fight for victims of fascism in Europe.
Activists did not view women’s rights as being part of human rights. To be taken seriously as activists, women probably believed that they needed to distance themselves from issues specific to women.
The label of “feminist,” like that of “career woman,” became a dirty word. The first women to enter professions were insecure in their roles. They did not want to appear “soft or gentle” and they did not want to have children for of fear of becoming trapped as housewives, as their mothers had been. The only images of women that existed for these freer women were that of the “man-hating feminist” and “the gentle wife and mother.”
Women who worked or who took an interest in political affairs did not know how to behave as women in their unconventional roles. They struggled with the perceptions of being too feminine or of appearing too tough. The roles that existed for women did not allow for human complexity or a full range of emotional expression.
The reasons for women’s “mistaken choice” to return to the home had less to do with the feminist myth and more to do with messages from educators, medical professionals, scholars, and advertisers who convinced women that they were more secure in being “bound,” like the feet of a Chinese girl. Freudian theory also contributed to the image of the “man-eating” feminist.
Various elements from the culture had worked together to contribute to the view that women should adhere to the feminine mystique. Some, such as advertisers, were motivated by profit, while others were motivated by bias and possible fears of new competition in the workplace and social sphere.