Leaning in to the Feminine Mystique

Path Breakers - Then and Now

In 1963, the Feminine Mystique was published, my mother was born and my grandmother was 23 years old. 50 years after the Feminine Mystique, Facebook COO published LeanIn - I was 23 years old, Somewhat eerily I purchased this novel for my mothers 50th birthday, inscribed in the front cover was the following "Thank-you, for taking my hand and teaching me everything I needed to know. "

Unfortunately, in comparing both - I am too aware of the stark similarities they hold.
Aside from both being written by privileged white Jewish females, with strong mothers and established careers- the value in their similarities lie in the content and timing of their message.


Friedan introduced us to the notion of internal obstacles to female fulfilment, the socialisation of 'the suburban housewife' reinforced by magazines, advertisement and popular culture. To Friedan "The suburban housewife [is]--the dream image of the young American woman . . . healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home."

Echoing Friedan, the true feminine fulfilment promised to my grandmother went something like this, 'don't be afraid to marry young', 'femininity begins at home', 'you should stop work when you marry' and 'careers are built at home'.

Thanks to Friedan's relentless challenging of the feminine mystique, my grandmother's consciousness was awaked, as well as her peers. The deeply embedded idea of a happy homemaker was destroyed, and spilled into the workforce - removing barriers and breaking down roadblocks.

Yet, milestones can quickly become millstones. I too am saturated by media portrayals of the 'suburban housewife' 21st century style;


Betty Friedan wrote

"She was afraid to even ask of herself the silent question: is this all?"

Sandberg's realisation eerily echoes a similar silence that Betty portrayed over 50 years earlier - extending that internal question to the modern women,

"How can she have it all?"

'Is this all' and 'how can she have it all' addresses a guilt hidden in females that live in a society that is out of touch with reality. Where homemakers are happy with a wasted education and career mums balance baby and briefcase in Prada shoes.


Friedan's tell tale heart explains the tug homeward as a disparity between reality and conformity, originating in a mystique that paints a painful choice between "love, home, and children" and "other goals and purposes in life."

Now 50 years on a tug of war is replaced with a balancing act - Sandberg tells us a story, of double standards, entrenched attitudes and regressive catch-22s that permeate the very professional world into which Friedan exhorted my grandmother to venture half a century ago. About to embark on a career of my own, I know my Grandmother - glowing with pride is also concerned - what will I be giving up in joining this pursuit?

Both books are similar not just in their written agenda, but in the time they appear. Our feminine mystic of the maid, the mum and the mogul - seems to have us just as depressed, just as dismayed and just as pathetic as our grandmothers before Betty. But, history likes to repeat itself, pregnant in a time of dismay - Sandburg rose to name the problem so many of us see, sparking a conversation.

Faced with a movement to 'opt-out', the fear in the eyes of graduating women and a reclaiming of the 'feminist housewife'. Sandberg came at a time to announce the 'problem with no name' and invigorate debate about what could or should change.


Both authors provide a personal solution to a collective problem - they instil a message of change. Friedan sets up a new life plan and Sandberg tells us to sit at the table, don't leave before we leave and find a partner who will support us. Both in sharing their own narratives, ask us not only to let go of the guilt, but also to let it fuel us to make the changes we want to see in our home and more broadly in the system itself. It is the baton that my grandmother once held, that now I hold high in the third leg of the race.

Overlooking the Important Message.

Both Friedan and Sandberg emphatically argue for a revolution at home. But the conversation now, just as it did 50 years ago, sees work/life as a female issue. Calling for tax rebates, childcare, flex time - for women only.

I like my grandmother, am aware that women can do anything. She may have had the Mary Tylor Moore Show while I had the Spice Girls, but the message was still the same.

We find it easy to show you what has been done by our grandmothers, but if you ask us what we need to fix, let alone how to fix it - we unravel. This is because society has structured its gender roles so that a woman is a primary care giver - despite the fact she has worked 9-5. In taking up roles of male privilege, we have refused to give up roles in female subrogation.

Articles like "women cant have it all", "The second shift" and "Super Women" depict our collective conscious. Women feel like we have these terrible and dismal choices - opting out of the workforce if we want to be a mother. The father is nowhere to be seen. My brother at 23 certainly did not see this conflict arising.


The gendering of this conversation has the potential to cloud our improvements. The issue I have is why are men AGAIN, let off the hook. Taken almost out of the debate. DESPITE the insistence from both authors that either we must change the masculine mystique or we need to choose partners who will do 50/50.

Sandberg has no time for biologically determined stereotypes and suggests that men should "lean in" at home. "Even if 'mother knows best' is rooted in biology," she grudgingly offers, "it need not be written in stone..." Just as Friedan suggested that there is a male mystique at play to see the man as the breadwinner, and the female clings onto this notion of the nurturer. Unfortunately, women seem to have missed this message - instead changing themselves around a system bound to fail if men do not change too.

Sandberg highlights this by asking, what man has ever been asked 'how do you do it all'. This part of her message cannot and should not be silenced.

From what I have seen, we are not off to a great start.