Sunday, February 19, 2012

2012.02.19 The Feminine Mystique Turning 50

It would have been easier for me to get ordained in the Episcopal Church back in the late 70s when I started naively out on that track—an aisle that turned into a maze—if I’d been a man, not been the mother to four children, timed my calling so it didn’t collide with my wild midlife awakening, and not read Betty Friedan.

I’m not bitter about the struggle or sexist attitudes in the church, and have written about the many graces that came my way including a few amazing male bishops! Also part of the maze was my own grievous chaos that daunted my patriarchal uptight church. It daunted me, too!

Bette Friedan, a Jewish woman and a graduate of my alma mater Smith College, was not on anyone’s list of required reading for those feeling called to ordination to the priesthood. Nevertheless she found her way into my restless heart right alongside God, and the two cooperated within me to move me along against seemingly impossible odds.

Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique" published in 1963 when my first child a daughter was born, begins: "The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled 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?'"

That question would end up sparking a second wave of feminism in the United States, would permanently transform the American social fabric, and the book would come to be seen as a pioneering moment in American history and one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Betty’s silent question hit me with arrow depth. So did the silent question God-in-me asked one day in the midst of whatever number batch of chocolate chip cookies I was making in my own suburban kitchen: Why are you doing this?

The two questions precipitated a quest toward a vocation I’d longed for and lingered around since childhood. It took me a record 11 years (usually 4), two bishops (usually 1,) and the kind of “patience” the biblical Job gets credit for but never had to get ordained.

I have no regrets. Adversity strengthened my resolve and my vocation. And I continue to squawk, occasionally too loudly,about gender justice and call myself a Christian feminist. (My dear 1963-born daughter gets lovingly impatient with me.)

However I do wonder if today women feel Friedan’s vague “sense of dissatisfaction” as they continue to struggle to balance careers and child-rearing in a still patriarchally ordered church and society. Or are too many of us too affluent, or maybe too guilty, in this country to feel the “strange stirring” toward empowerment and equivalence?