Feminine Mystiques: What To Expect - 'the power of the gaze'
Editor's Note: Fifty years since the first publication of Betty Friedan's seminal feminist work The Feminine Mystique, Radio 4 commissions three leading writers to celebrate her influence in new short stories exploring the contemporary feminist landscape. The second in the series, What To Expect, will be broadcast on Friday 9th August at 3.45pm.
Sometimes it takes decades for the meaning of a book to make itself plain. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published during the year of my conception and I didn’t come across it until it was already two decades old. Even then the mass of middle class, Western women were still living the life prescribed for them and persuading themselves of their own contentment. At the time, whatever Friedan had to say about women, domesticity, motherhood and careers resonated little with me, as part of my family came from West Africa. Here, the idea of a woman not working would have been viewed as extraordinary, rather than the reverse. Also, like a great many young women growing up with choices, I thought I was free.
Later, I came to Betty Friedan through one of her followers: Gloria Steinem. Sometime in the 1980’s I read an essay by Steinem in which she used the phrase, ‘the power of the gaze’, to describe the freedom men have to look - and keep looking - at women in public spaces. Men can and do stare at women all the time. If a man, a stranger, stares at a woman and she accidentally meets his gaze, it’s inevitably she who will look away. If she stares back at him, she’s issuing either an invitation or a challenge. Men possess the power of the gaze, women do not.
Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem taught me a new way of seeing: how the smallest things constrain, how even the most apparently trivial act may be suffused with power. Everywhere men stared, whilst women averted their eyes. Men whistled and women pretended not to hear. It looked and felt wrong to me, unkind to stare at a person in such a way as to make her uncomfortable in her own skin, but I was told it was ‘natural’, flattering even. The builders hanging off the scaffolding yelling at young women walking alone - that wasn’t hectoring. That was just boys being boys. The word ‘objectify’ has been used about women so much over the decades since, it has all but lost its meaning. But this is what it is to objectify - to strip a person of subjectivity, such that you do not think, or perhaps care, what she is feeling when she is being stared at. Just as Betty Friedan said that women weren’t happy when they were being told they should be; Gloria Steinem said women weren’t flattered, even though they were told they should be.
There will be those men (and women) who tell me some women like it. There will be those men who say what a dreary world it would be if a man couldn’t look at a pretty girl. And I will say this: maybe so, but wouldn’t it be better if we were as free to stare as you.
What to Expect is the second story in a series of three. You can read the inspiration behind the first story, Mink by Marina Warner, here. The third and final story is Theatre Six by Sarah Hall and will be broadcast on 16thAugust at 3.45pm.
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