Feminine Mystiques: In thrall to glamour - the story behind Mink
Editors 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. Beginning with Mink by Marina Warner, from 2 August.
Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique was the start of a brilliant series of calls to rebellion, which I began reading when I was at university. They include Eva Figes’s Patriarchal Attitudes, Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, Kate Millett’s scorching attack on male authors and, of course, not least - The Female Eunuch. Betty Friedan was older, more experienced, and yet sexually less wild and experimental - or at least she gave that impression. She exuded a feeling of having lived through the conventions she evoked. She was a survivor, a messenger returning from the danger zone of domestic ideals, and she understood deeply the monstrosity of the norm.
The book came out in l963, but I was reading it later, and it struck me with the full force of recognition: my mother suffered that isolation, those pretences, the coldness and possible violence that lurked in the heart of bourgeois marriage. This was around the same time as the Stones song ‘Mother’s Little Helper’. I didn’t at first understand what the words of the song referred to, but when a friend explained, laughing, I recognised that too; tranquillisers, sleeping pills, pain relief in the bathroom medicine cupboard propped up the beauty, calm, and elegance that a woman had to cultivate in the roles of wife, mother – and hostess.
But it wouldn’t be right to present my mother as a pill-popping housewife along the lines that Betty Friedan diagnosed. The situation in the suburbs of the United States was more stifling for women than it was in England, partly because Americans were richer. After the war in the US, when staying at home became the ideal, it was financially feasible for many more families to imprison wives and mothers than it was in the bombed towns of England. Also, in the US, the suburban sprawl is looser, wider: I was recently living on Long Island and it was half an hour’s drive to the next pint of milk. Supermarkets don’t offer friendly updates between neighbours, not like corner shops. I felt I was living my mother’s life, but my stint was only a matter of months.
I chose to write about a woman in the Fifties longing for a mink coat because that was the highest status symbol of the era. My mother wanted one, but I have improvised on the facts. However, we were living near Cambridge and I do have a sister. Existence was very bleak. A bus passed twice a day; she didn’t drive and besides, my father went to work in the car. Because they had been living abroad, I was already a boarder far from home; my sister went to school locally, but herself boarded during the week. My mother was from southern Italy, vivacious and beautiful, but she didn’t go mad, though she was nearly crushed by the cold and the loneliness, and used to cry a lot; she had the spirit and ingenuity of the south and she extricated herself – by learning to drive, by getting a job, and so forth; bit by bit, she refashioned her life. But she was always in thrall to glamour, and she clung to the necessity of fare figura. It was all-important to her, to put on a show, to keep a brave face, to display one’s charms to the full.
When I catch a glimpse of myself looking slouching and dishevelled, I am haunted by her, and by her uncomprehending sadness that I wouldn’t make the best of myself, as she would put it. For someone of her background (foreign, penniless), charm was a weapon, the only one a woman had.
She tried to train me in the feminine mystique, and I was very willing, then, to learn. I’d make my own outfit for a party, while she expressed horror at my slapdash methods – the unstitched seams, the crooked hems. We’d look at Vogue together, sitting all together by the fire, because there was no central heating in the house, a very draughty, leaky old rectory. Later, I strove against her ideas of a woman’s fate. But some of the happiest moments of my childhood took place when she pointed out the latest skirt lengths (rising) and the new styles of hat. I made up the stuff about fur for the story, but she did save up for a Canadian squirrel and when she wore it, she looked as if nothing could touch her.
The next two stories in the series are What To Expect by Aminatta Forna on the 9th August at 3.45pm and Theatre Six by Sarah Hall on 16thAugust at 3.45pm.
Image of Marina Warner courtesy of Ed Park
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