Femininity and Youth in 1950s

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Betty Friedan's work Feminine Mystique and Paul Goodman's work Growing Up Absurd provide a distinct picture of the world of youth, specifically women in the 1950s, in the frames of socialization, self-actualization, career and lifestyle choices. These works clearly indicate that young women's desire to be happy and enjoy life to the fullest has a lot in common with their wish to participate equally in societal reforms.The authors of these non-fictional works present the actual need to change focus of women role from domestic duties of housewives to more productive choices of social appraisal, professional growth, adventurous communication with people of different cultures, ages, ethnicities, social backgrounds. The authors believe that spontaneous expressiveness of thinking, doing, and taking decisions contributes much to personality development of young people, who should grow up, taking road to their dreams, moving forward step by step to realizing them equal members of the community.

In addition, if it takes time to change social order, the role of youth should never be underestimated, as they actually present part of people who are interested in innovative changes, in taking shared decision-making initiatives, in pushing forward intentions that would have powerful impact in future. In the up-to-date context, both literary works are valuable samples of non-fiction literature that presents interest in gender-related aspects. Actually, these books about youth in general and women’s role in particular are still relevant nowadays, as they show clear distinction between social roles of young and old people, according to generational aspect. On the other hand, these researches explicitly show positive correlation between social actualization (participatory role of youth in socially important decisions) and adequate response to challenges that globalization brings forward to launch progressive changes in social order. Young people like to go in protesting against norms and standards of society, so they are often subjects of criticism, on the part of the older generation.

However, when turn it upside down, it is possible to construct assumption that this way youth turns ready to actualize their dreams of new lifestyle and innovative social order, based on new principles of harmonic relationships to set free from prejudices. It is not by chance that nowadays many elders are stick to conservatism, as related to marital relationships, material wealth, raising children; participate in work-related duties and obligations that pretend to be essential features of modern society. In overall, some researchers confidently related all these elopements to primary necessities for women of middle class. In overall, this sentential positively correlates with the culture of culture of domesticity, or in the other words the "cult of domesticity", the concept that is strongly related to biblical (Christian) patriarchy.

The conception of domestic culture has raised on the background of patriarchal order that came to change “cult of goddess”. Prior to rise of popularity of Christian tehologic beliefs, many nations worldwide were stuck to appraisal of maternity and mother as the highest element of matriarchal culture. The role of woman in such societies was close to deity, and all society members were destined to praise her over husband, as it was up to her to give birth to a child; and moreover, it was a woman whose features of charm, love and care to other family and community members were praised above masculinity elements of male representatives of a group of social members. In this relation, the right for divinity was up to very high extent presented in the early societies. And this notion went down in the rise of biblical patriarchy, mostly known as Christian patriarchy.

Biblical set of beliefs are evangelically based, and they are to be criticized by many women who are obliged to get involved into social obligations to be mothers who have no other significant matters and issues to be resolved, but taking care about home and children. However, Christianity builds strong argumentation on this position of woman as domestic housewife. In this relation, it is true, based on biblical considerations, that God himself set distinction between gender role of woman as the baby sitter, housewife, and loving and caring figure, while husband should be responsible to take financial and ruling (ordering) care. And, it is God who commanded a married couple to “be fruitful and multiply”, raising kids thoroughly in Christian education, and keeping them under fathers’ authority as much as they can live under his shelter and get help from parents.

In this context, Betty Friedan builds the strong objection concerning limitations put on women’s gender role in patriarchal societies. In her opinion, the boundaries on women self-actualization let them stand far from driving into active position in society, reach progress in personality development, and taking decisions on being free to gain power to change their lives. Consequently, limits on womanhood to the restricted role of homemaker and household keeper do not let young women to gain decent education, raise potential in art, science, hobby crafts, or even travel in distant regions. This makes women far from staying happy, although they may have many children and loving husband. Mostly, according to Betty Friedan, many women stay at low ranks of human needs, as referred to Maslow’s hierarchy, and they fulfill only basic needs to develop by their life-style: Food, sleep, shelter, sex, and sometimes love and belonging needs, if they are so lucky. However, many women, having completed their role of housewives who have shelter, food, loving husband, and children, do not have good chance to gain decent rate of self-actualization.

Image 1. Maslows’s Hierarcy of Needs

According to the rules of domestic culture that promotes values of keeping house clean, serving cooked food hot, letting children to get higher education, and even serve breakfast to husband in the morning, while he is watching TV and reading Huffington Post lying on a sofa, there is no place for adventurous life for youth, with specific regard to young women. In her prominent work Feminine Mystique, Betty Fridan clearly states: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'"(17). In contrast, it is clear that intention to get married comes obsessive for many young women who desire to get married following the ultimate moral maxim. Friedan realizes that this problem is extremely actual in the context of dropping the actual average age of marriage and increase of birthrate throughout the 1950s. At the same time, following trend of marriage celebrations, many families got TV-based and magazines / newspaper images of happy housewives who enjoyed cleaning carpets, cooking tasty dinners for their families, and taking care of children eating and educating habits, while their husbands took decisions to take a mortgage loan to cover expenses for a house purchased in credit. These efforts of launching extensive media campaigns had huge impact on downgrade of female human dignity.

Following commercial initiatives to trade-off household staff, cleaning / cooking materials, houses, vehicles, and other things in the years of the rise of Industrial Revolution, many local firms and global corporations attracted housewives with colorful images of happy life at home that was far from reality. In fact, many women suffered from their life at home conditions, but they had little chances to resist temptation to give depression away from their life. They dreamt about happy marriage, but got no major satisfaction in it, and following more needs to be covered, they watched TV and filled their bulks of free time with doing alright with daily routine duties to clean house and cook food for husband and children. These values of “animal-like” physical lifestyle were decently promoted in American culture of 1940-1960, when girls were taught to fulfill their life mission in marriage and housewifery. So, many young girls chose this life pass instead of going out with adventurous life style. Friedman criticizes the approach of functionalism that educators used to train women's femininity only based on sexual fulfillment as primary foundation of their life. In many cases, this led to poor emotional development that caused girls to face critical identity crisis.

In the face of the rise of functionalist approach towards female gender role, Friedan is aware that underestimation of the role of woman in patriarchal society lead to her devaluation as personality. Therefore, there is no actual place for feminine mystique in today’s society, specifically in the rise of consumer culture. Statistically, people spend the most of their incomes to housing, and it is the highest rank of 41.31 (Consumer Price Index)(Keister and Southgate 237). In most of cases, these all expenditures are to pay for unnecessary staff that women are obsessed with as if it helps them to do some housework. Many middle-class families choose to “take on debt from home loans, college tuition, and credit cards. Often, this debt cannot be repaid, causing families to file for bankruptcy.” (Keister and Southgate 243).

Image 2. Bankruptcy Filings (2006-2009). Source: (Keister and Southgate 241).

And, if critics say that “Americans spend too much”, they justify by spending at least “less than previous generations” (Keister and Southgate 243).

Image 3. Purchasing Power of the Dollar in 1950-2008 (Keister and Southgate 235).

In objection to the radically formulated position on feminity by Friedman, state that she should rather express “her pity for those who really need it-- the half starved, oppressed people in the world”, and as if the “mothers, (or housewives as we are called) took this advice, what would become of our children? Or better yet, the future of the world” (Friedan, Fermaglich, and Fine 380). Pure mother instincts is to care about children, but is it all that destined for women, and no other option she can use?

Image 4. Number of poverty and poverty rate: 1959-2007. Source: (Keister and Southgate 255)

In the relation described above, Adam Kirsch (2013) formulates strong objection to functionalist theory of feminity, stating that “all problems [are] of affluence, of a society that for the first time in history has more than it needs to satisfy its members’ animal wants.” He supports Paul Goodman’s theory of special role of youth in improvement society from its shift from instinctive life style to more productive way. It is the “system of interlocking bureaucracies that makes the economy run so smoothly leaves no room for individual initiative or manly spiritedness” (Kirsch 2013), and it gives no chance for youth to develop in urban life frames. The critic supports Goodman’s viewpoint on harm that social order brings: “Where everything has become property and order, it is quite impossible to be vivacious, aggressive, undeliberate, exploratory and venturesome, without being out of order and sometimes smashing things” (Goodman). Basically, modernity offers no other way to next generations rather than obey commands of elders until they will not come one of them getting older. The only chance to change this trend is to bring out the best from being young and energetic to change world by believing, dreaming, having faith, helping others to find inspiration and motivation to lead the healthier lifestyle, either physically and mentally.

Image 5.Consumer Price Index (CPI) Expenditures by Category.

Every young person has dreams that are initially presenting one as a unique personality that has identity and set of beliefs that may have strong impact on developing human dignity by experiential events. What may happen, when youth is going “on the road”? What if they have nothing to lose staying apart from close relatives and parents? What is they would like to change something or reach something more? What is their motivation of going “on the road”? Even being criticized on inconsistency, many young people are ready to go and leave familiar lifestyle to make a new day and a new start, having no other plans, but just live in a present moment and enjoy of being free to themselves, showing who they really are by acting and changing settings. These intentions are what Jack Kerouac tried to highlight in his famous novel On the Road, written based on his travelling experience across many regions of the USA and neighboring regions.

The activity started by the main character of the novel Sal Paradise is going “on the road” to understand what he really is and what actually his mission in life is until he gets older. He is in search for adventures, new friends, and communication with people from different social backgrounds, unexpected meetings and situational experiences that makes life emotionally colorful.

However, many representatives of young generation choose the lifestyle closely connected to criminality, and they justify this choice by their needs for expression and escapasim from strict social order and functionalism. Adam Kirsch (2013) analyzes this risk to be one of the major threats for personality development for young people who are not got used to be guided, ordered andcommanded by their parents, but actually need to disobey their mandatory obligations to prove “to be worthy”. In this relation, there is major parallel between America in 1950s and modernity, when many young people, even in their teens, did not want to start education, but instead went ‘on the road’ of criminality: “Pretty soon it becomes clear,” “that people are uneasy about, ashamed of, the world that they have given the children to grow up in. That world is not manly enough, it is not earnest enough… I assume that the young really need a more worthwhile world in order to grow up at all.” (Goodman). Adam Kirsch contextualizes the problem of youth delinquency and beat-style as way of “dropping out”, in terms of Kerouac, going “on the road”, staying free and apart from command. According to this viewpoint, children do not want to follow social order, because it is far from perfect, based on conservatism and formalism. In response, going on the road means to set heroic counterculture and express it in revolutionary experience. The need to disobey is meaningful for children who can realize that they are independent personalities who take care about self-actualization. Living under functionality norms of obsolete social pattern they can hardly go on with innovative experiences. Adam Kirsch is aware that they may make society whole again by mending their breathing of spirit of progress, instability, and even insanity in self-actualizing matters of liberation, equality, freedom of choice, friendship, and human dignity. There is actuality in “a return to any actual past but the new Jerusalem, a realm of perfect plenty, freedom, justice, fraternity, reason and equality.” (Kirsch 2013). This is experience promoted by Jack Kerouac in his novel On the Road (1957)

Travels of Kerouac and his fellow across America are meaninful in setting of postwar beat and counterculture that present interest, as they support freidns in their journey to self happiness playing jazz, composing poetry, and even drug use. Kerouac expressed himself in the role of narrator Sal Paradise. This image is influential to understand his personality as a leader who can make choice and decide to be satisfied with changing location in his travelling destinations. In readlity, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia University and decided to return to New York to write his literary work that came to be significant for portrayal diversity of experiences he got “on the road”.

Furthermore, this novel reflects author’s symbolical dedication of escapasim from paradise concerning the concept of going “on the road”. Following Milton’s nostalgy on the “lost paradise” that is lost forever, Kerouac ironically admits that youth do not need domestic-related “paradise”, but they really need self-expression and fulfillment of their mission. The author proves this notion by means of passage in the book, when one of the friends Rami comes out with a bag heavy loaded with groceries: “And he said, “Paradise, I have told you several times what President Truman said, we must cut down on the cost of living.” (Kerouac 71). This quote is a decent response to consumer culture and functionalist life style that many people prefer to lead rather than choosing to go “on the road” to life of adventures. Practically, this is the element of living naturally in accordance with harmony between inner and outer expressions of personality: “many middle-class Americans share values that include activity and work, achievement and success, moral orientation, humanitarianism, efficiency and practicality, science and secular rationality, material comfort, progress, equality, freedom, democracy, external conformity, nationalism and patriotism, individual personality, and racism and related group superiority” (Keister and Southgate 243). These essential features that middle-class representatives possess make them far from being happy actually living in present moment. Instead, they follow illusionary “American Dream, homeownership, a secure job, a vehicle, and a family with the opportunity for upward mobility from work.” (Keister and Southgate 242), but they lose opportunity to be who they really are and do what they love.

I can imagine myself in the world of the 1950s. Being representative of middle class, I would rather leave comfortable life and make a new start by going “on the road” that will help me to find my proper social role. Personally, travelling experience would be beneficial for me, as I like to meet new friends to enjoy interpersonal communication to feel happier. In a letter to one of his students in 1961, Jack Kerouac dropped: "Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to find that America and to find the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. Andwefoundhim.” (Leland 17). Possibly, travelling experience of this author helped him to understand what really matters in life, in spite of exemplary behavioral patterns that make people stand too distant from one another, as concerning material wealth.

As for me, going “on the road” means staying free from social obligations. It means to start new life path as well. And furthermore, it matters much to preserve initial image of ability to love and feel compassion to those who are around. These personal qualities are to be trained in mind, heart and in spirit to be happy. To find God “on the road”, like Jack Kerouac found him means to feel something different and radically new, and it matters more than staying pleased and satisfied with what you already have. Instead, I would rather lose everything I have than stay to be a slave of social restrictions that people impose on others by power, money, material objects, and social obligations. I think that we may do all these actions and possess all these things on duty, but if do not feel pleasure from them, we should leave for better life “on the road”. Staying on the road means to move forward, to rush in fast to progress and new feelings.

However, it was difficult to start to go “on the road”, when you were living in 1950s. This period was characterized with strong inclinations to rush forward following promoted campaigns to reach the star of American dream. Being obsessed with standards of consumer culture, people were really far from true understanding of the meaning of life. There was no hope and no place for surprise in society full of social orders and obligations. People had to follow daily routine, having plans of life, vacation, birthdates of children, and even paying long-term mortgage loans that may be signs of their bankruptcy. By leading such a lifestyle, they had no other option, but escape instead of leading life of ignorant citizens that have lawful right to vote, but whose voice has nothing in common with truth and freedom. I think that when I chose to live in 1950s, I would have even no other opinion to be expressed freely. Maybe I could only feel depressed in despair for lost hopes and dreams to become who I really want. It is sad to realize that young women in many societies even nowadays lead unhealthy life style that drops them far from being personalities with unique way of thinking and with principally radical position to stand for their rights. This means many social orders did not step to far way forward from obsolete agrarian types of societies, without having hope for progress.

Works Cited

Friedman, Betty. The Feminine Mystique.W. W. Norton, 2010.

Friedan, Betty; Fermaglich, Kirsten; Fine, Lisa. The Feminine Mystique: The Contexts, The Scholarship on the Feminine Mystique (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.

Friedan, Betty. The Problem that Has No Name. The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton, 1963.

Friedan, Betty. The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud. The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton, 1963.

Goodman, Paul. Growing Up Absurd.Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society.Vintage Books, 1960.

Kerouac, Jack. On The Road, 1957.

Keister, Lisa A. Southgate. Darby E. Inequality: A Contemporary Approach to Race, Class, and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Kirsch, Adam. "Paul Goodman: America's classic bad teacher". New Statesman, 15 November 2012.Web.http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/11/paul-goodman-americas-classic-bad-teacher

Leland, John (2007). Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think). New York: Viking, 2007.

April 06, 2023

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