The Vaginal Mystique


This week is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, widely credited with being one of the most influential books of the 20th Century.

As The New York Times explains:

That phrase, of course, became famous when “The Feminine Mystique” was published, 50 years ago on Tuesday, to wide acclaim and huge sales, and it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish.

But that suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood was a lot harder to kill than most of us ever imagined. In fact, it still exists, although it goes by a new name: attachment parenting.

Attachment parenting, the currently dominant parenting ideology, is just the feminine mystique writ large. In the 1950’s, the “good” mother was obsessed with various irrelevant measures of her value, like having the whitest wash or the cleanest floor. In the 2010’s, the “good” mother is obsessed with enduring the longest labor without pain relief, never putting her child down and never letting her children cry.

Wikipedia has an excellent synopsis of The Feminine Mystique and several chapters have particular relevance to this modern day incarnation of domestic goddess-hood.

Chapter 9: Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.

Chapter 10: Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, finding that although they are not fulfilled by their housework, they are all extremely busy with it. She postulates that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded.

The attachment parenting industry, comprised of childbirth educators, doulas, midwives, lactation consultants, parenting advisors, sling manufacturers, etc. encourage mothers to think of themselves as needing many specialized services and products in order to be “good” mothers, while discouraging them from having actual careers, which would interfere with their ability to consume the services and goods offered by the attachment parenting industry.

Moreover, the attachment parenting industry insists on practices that fill 24 hours in each and every day, from extended breastfeeding, to constantly carrying young children, to letting them sleep in the parental bed on a regular basis. Attachment parenting has insisted that this is women’s role and if they ever complete these tasks, which used to be confined to infancy and toddlerhood, they will become unneeded.

Attachment parenting is obsessed with the mother’s body, emphasizing the vaginal mystique, the breast mystique and the mystique of the mother’s arms. As philosopher Rebecca Kukla has observed, attachment parenting fetishizes proximity, insisting that the mother’s body must always be in contact with the child’s body, making it impossible for her to accomplish anything in the larger world, effectively confining her to the home.

If anything, the philosophy of attachment parenting is even more restrictive than the 1950’s view of mothering. At least back then, women owned their own bodies. The 1950’s emphasis was on the perfect home and lifestyle; the contemporary emphasis is on the maternal body that performs perfectly (“It’s what women are designed to do.”), ignores even severe pain like labor pain (“It’s good pain.”) or insists that women brought their pain on themselves (“If only you didn’t fear birth …” “If only you were breastfeeding correctly …”).

The philosophy of attachment parenting requires more than goods; it requires services, expensive services. The feminine mystique required purchasing the best laundry detergent and floor wax. The vaginal mystique requires a small army of service providers — childbirth educators, doulas, midwives, and lactation consultants — who charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for their services. The products of the feminine mystique were economically within reach of even the poorest women. The products of the vaginal mystique are so expensive that women are actually publicly soliciting money to finance things like homebirth.

Make no mistake: attachment parenting and the vaginal mystique are every bit as suffocating and retrograde as the feminine mystique. Whether or not a child is born vaginally is no more important than whether or not your laundry is the whitest in the neighborhood. Neither makes any difference to the well-being of children. They are artificial conceptions of motherhood that serve the needs of everyone but mothers and children.