The Feminine Mystique- diagnosis June 2010

a revolutionary ideaI finally have a name, at the age of 35, for the chronic illness which has plagued me all my life.

I am suffering from a women’s communicable disease which is spread by contact with both hosts and carriers. It is a severe form of soul sickness called the ‘Feminine Mystique’, and was identified by Betty Friedan and publicised in her book of the same name in 1963. I found it a month ago.

This disease is problematic to detect and treat, mainly because its signs are misdiagnosed by an already ill society, and because its symptoms are subtle, pervasive and debilitating. Some have a vested- though unconscious-  interest in encouraging its spread. Some are well meaning but so damaged by the effects of it themselves that they are unable to be of help to the sufferers.

My own infection with this chronic mystique surely came to me early in age through my mother, father and grandparents. Additionally I grew up in South Africa, a country psychologically well prepared for repressive and prejudicial ways of living. The development of human beings was selective on the basis of gender, race and religion in favour of male, white christians. All other forms of human where given less status and opportunity as befitted their supposed lesser potential. Many of the environmental factors which have led to the pandemic proportions of the disease globally also informed a political variant of the illness called ‘Apartheid’ which was out of control in South Africa for decades.

Given these conditions of childhood it is not surprising that the features of the illness can be found repeated in striking frequency throughout my life. A consistent underachievement as a person- our enthusiastic primary school  headmaster constantly reminded on each report that “Catherine has not yet reached her full potential”, and warned of the hard work necessary to do so. What with the unfavourable home conditions, my low self esteem and resultant purposelessness, the lack of inspiring female role models and unconscious social conditioning on every front, this was not a likely prospect. Fantasy became my coping mechanism despite the severe quilt it aroused, and it is still at play in my adult life. I call it now ‘having ideas’ but it is a well developed form of self soothing- like sucking a mental dummy- which prevents some of the discomfort fneccessary to propelling me into purpose. 

Nursing those wounds

The choice of nursing as a career at the age of 16 (I could go to college but not to a university) hamstrung me further. Denied a high enough quality of education to challenge my intellectual abilities I tortured myself for 15 years in a health system which has only 1 constitent capacity- widespread and pathological human rights violations of every kind imaginable. Having a less well developed sense of self and a religious bent to saving others made this particularly difficult for me- I over identified with my suffering patients, and there families,  while trying desperately to force good quality care from an incapable system manned by incapable, similarly impaired people. Nursing as a profession is so deeply imbued with the feminine mystique that it has lost any sign of professional integrity- much like a PHD graduate after 30 years of housewifery loses her sense of humanity. Self actualisation (or professional development) is a far off dream when one is reduced so thoroughly to the material plane of repetitive semi-skilled tasks. The truth is basic nursing is boring and easy. Without the benefit of creating new theories and conceptual frameworks, or working in an area demanding difficult clinical skills, or mastering its therapeutic arts it is intellectual death and breeds the generations of nurses we now revile. They care only to repudiate as much responsibility as possible- they have become enslaved by the mystique that has told them through the mouths of male doctors and brittle admisntrators everything that they cannot be.                                                                                                the undercover insanity of the 60's woman

 What women really know

I can see clearly now how the very simple human fear of failure, anxiety about personal growth, resistance to the rigorous of learning were encouraged to flourish in a society and family culture which wanted to ensure that I not get too carried away with it at any rate! Women had no need to develope a sense of self as it was destined to be subsumed into their family and children in the future. I have the clear emotional imprint of these dichotomies still within me- learn- but not too much, get enthusiastic but not overly, be creative but don’t delude yourself that it has meaning (or value). A constant start-stop-start-stop of the soul which I now recognise in so many moments of my life.

So I am a perfect example of the outcome of the dysfunctional anti-women world view of global culture. Except for one thing. Although I married and had a child I never bought into the ‘holy grail’ of salvation it was supposed to offer. For although my family culture believed steadfastly in it and raised their children accordingly there was an undeniable reality to us. My parents were divorced by the time I turned two, and their subsequent relationships were chronically unsuccessful. My mother was emotionally absent but very busy- she moved on from efficient housekeeping  to constant renovation. After the sudden, horrific death of my mother, in 2004- when my ex husband and I admitted that our marriage was as empty as the rest of life lived under these delusions (though we had no name for it then) we negotiated our mutual early release amiably. My only regret is birthing my son into all this confusion, for colouring his life with the remnants of this conditioning. I see how I still buy into aspects of these myths as I parent.

The outcome of all this childish exploration was the problem of having two beliefs that neatly tied my hands.

“Girls (except for some rare exceptions of which this girl is clearly not one – see how her life shows you so), don’t have the ability to be fulfilled through work AND fulfilment in marriage is an illusion.”

Given my underdeveloped sense of self, given my unschooled capacity for rigorous challenging developmental activity or self discipline (this would implie a fully formed self to discipline!), given that the magic wand of money had never materialised, given my cynically wise mistrust of an unjust society- what else was there? These questions throw a deeper belief into sharp relief:

“Girls have to be very pretty, very clever or very rich to have the lives they want. You are not one them.”

Will I sell the house bought with a small inheritence from my beloved mother to build a new  life I am scared of dreaming I desire? Will pure awareness of these puppet strings enable me to finally move where I will; with my own momentum?

Will I cure myself of this dis-ease with women’s medicine of my own making?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Graeme
    Jul 28, 2010 @ 20:27:50

    I’m reminded of an extract from my favourite author, Graham Greene…

    “Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else an absolute ignorance”

    As a man, I can’t relate to your feelings as a woman or as a mother but I suspect you are far from being egotistical, evil or ignorant. So we all are destined for degrees of disappointment and unhappiness. It’s not a woman’s “privilege”..


  2. cathwrynn
    Jul 29, 2010 @ 16:03:07

    True Graeme, it is not a woman’s privelege but it is her almost universal experience- and that bears thinking about. Is this the human condition when humans- men and women- live so differently from each other? If this is both men and women’s experience is it inherent or is it ‘cultured’, so to speak? And degrees of this are, for sure, shared with men (for of course we share a difficult culture), but for women the common advice is for her to accept, as her lot, this disappointment -and she is given the explicit advice that she continue to be absorbed by the primary priorities in her life- her husband, her children, her housework. If a man expresses disapointment he is encouraged to take on the world and create solutions; to captain his own destiny. We may share the human condition of disapointment equally as woman and man (on closer inspection we may not…) – but there is not equality in how we may respond and take ownership of its resolution. Becoming aware of these dynamics can help in shifting them. Thank you for the beautiful quote and response…


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