Reprise: A New Domesticity and a New Feminism
This sequence of assignments comes from my "HIS 213: Women and the American Experience," an intermediate-level course that attracts mostly non-history majors and minors. The gender ration is often 9:1 or even higher. Students are deeply committed to the subject matter and work very diligently. A number have already taken a women's studies course and have already read Betty Friedan's "The Problem That Has No Name." Those who have not, have heard of The Feminine Mystique and are eager to find out more. Most have also heard of Levittown –having grown up in suburbs themselves – and have a strong interest in investigating this suburban prototype. Students sometimes have difficulty choosing between the assignments because they want to do both.
The second assignment can only work with highly motivated students who have been working well all semester. It, in effect, turns them loose in a virtual archive with minimal direction. The last part of the assignment asks them to read an essay espousing a point of view most have not considered but that is becoming more relevant daily in our contemporary "culture wars," that of an evangelical Christian woman.
May 1: Read Woloch, 492–506; Betty Friedan, “The Problem That Has No Name”; and Daniel Horowitz, “Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique.” [Note: The link to the Horowitz essay is via the college’s subscription to Project Muse. This means it will not work off campus.]
The Feminine Mystique helped launch a new wave of feminism. “The Problem That Has No Name” was, according to readers, the chapter that most moved and influenced them. How might we explain the chapter’s power?
Horowitz demonstrates fairly conclusively that Friedan was not at all the “typical” housewife she portrayed herself as being in The Feminine Mystique. To what extent, and in what ways, does this impair the work’s credibility? To what extent, and in what ways, does this impair its value as a historical source?
- Woloch revised her essay after Horowitz’s work appeared. How did she respond to the questions posed above?
Levittown, the setting for the new domesticity. There had been little housing construction during the Depression and virtually none during the war. However, full employment + the absence of consumer goods during the war = large savings on the part of many in the now federally insured savings and loan banks. This meant that the demand for housing would be enormous, something William Levitt clearly foresaw. Many of Levitt’s customers, and those of the thousands of builders who followed his lead, were G.I.s and their families. Under the terms of the “G.I. Bill,” veterans were eligible for federally insured mortgages at reduced rates. In this fashion the federal government subsidized veterans and their families AND the construction industry AND the furniture industry AND the appliance industry.
- What was this “ideal suburban community” like? That is, what were the houses themselves like?
- What was life like for the wives living in this new suburb? (check out the family photographs)
- What was the town, housing aside, like? (check out the commercial real estate photographs)
May 3: Scroll through The Feminist Chronicles early documents. Choose one which illustrates some distinctive feature of the “second wave” of American feminism. Elisabeth Elliot, “The Essence of Feminity: A Personal Perspective,” from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Submit one paragraph explaining your choice; in a second paragraph discuss what Elisabeth Elliot would have to say on the subject. In making your choice consider:
- What underlying social changes made the woman’s liberation movement possible (necessary?)?
- Who were its leaders?
- Where did they get their ideas?
- What ideas of women’s natures did they uphold?