This month marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and the chattering classes haven't stopped, well, chattering about it. We asked Rachel Mesch, author of our forthcoming Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women's Magazines Invented the Modern Woman, to comment on the striking similarities--and differences--between how women were both portrayed and instructed in women's magazine's from the Belle Epoque through the 1960s. Plus ca change, we might say...
"While the problem may have had no name, its cause was easy to identify. In her classic volume The Feminine Mystique, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Betty Friedan pointed an accusing finger directly at American women’s magazines.
“By the end of 1949,” lamented Friedan, “only one out of three heroines […] was a career woman—and she was shown in the act of renouncing her career and discovering that what she really wanted to be was a housewife.” What particularly disturbed Friedan, and what might seem surprising to contemporary readers, was that in previous generations, some of these very same magazines had urged women otherwise—cheering them on towards equal rights, suffrage and the career of their choice. A post-war emphasis on marriage and family building altered the equation. Friedan documents with dismay how legions of happy housewives seemed to get increasingly younger and childlike in the pages of McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, just as the bright ambitious futures that once lay before these college graduates receded from memory.
Friedan’s classic work reminds us that magazines have long controlled the precise dose of femininity served to women, inviting readers to see themselves in specific, culturally determined ways that can radically shift from one generation to the next—and from one continent to another. American readers, noted Friedan, scoffed at Simone de Beauvoir when The Second Sex was translated in the US. But French women’s magazines have their own fascinating story to tell about the feminine mystique and its journalistic deployment. The first French women’s glossies, Femina and La Vie Heureuse (literally, The Happy Life), which were launched in the early 1900s, also celebrated the happy housewife. But these blissful domestic figures were depicted just as often sitting at their desks-- where they wrote novels and poetry—as arranging flowers and tending to their children. Happiness, for these early working mothers, was measured through the precise balance of books and babies, intellectual and domestic productivity.
Several generations before their 1950s American equivalents, then, French women’s magazines pressured readers into a new bourgeois ideal. But it was one that encouraged women to use their minds, even as they kept up their impeccable households and appearances. Don’t leave it up to male authors to tell stories about women, urged best-selling author Delarue-Mardrus in a 1909 column for Femina. “Reflect, ladies,” she exhorted, “and write for us what you discover!”
Out of this combination emerged the paradoxical image of an “intellectual housewife,” as writer Camille Marbo termed it in 1907, one taught to recognize her own strengths inside and outside the home. There is nothing wrong with housework, noted Marbo in a long-forgotten but deeply significant early moment in “having it all” myth-making from the pages of La Vie Heureuse. It’s just that housework is not for every woman. And the worst thing in the world for a woman is to be forced to stay home when her talents lie elsewhere.
It would be another four decades before Friedan discovered this all over again."
For more on Having it All, including images from the book, see her recent piece in Slate's "DoubleX."