But Second Wave feminism descends from a much more individualistic intellectual mother, and that has actually wreaked some havoc on our well-being. Simone de Beauvoir is the ancestress of the ideals of the Second Wave, because her 1949 tome The Second Sex (newly rereleased in a fresh translation) was the philosophical framework that Betty Friedan drew upon—some would say cribbed from—in 1963 for her aspirational blockbuster, The Feminine Mystique. Now, French existentialism is, in some ways, a weird philosophy through which to articulate women’s deepest experiences and values. Born out of the ravages of the world’s worst war, it is a deeply cynical, secular school of thought that posits the self and personal choice as being the source of life’s meaning. It is about the self in isolation from the whole world of families, social roles, mutual obligations, concerns for the future of one’s children. As the vehicle of women’s self-definition, it is not, I’d say, a natural fit. But it was the fierce individualism of this philosophy that led de Beauvoir to her notion—radical for the post–World War II society she lived in—that women too possessed selves that were not defined by others. Still, existentialism’s very focus on personal choice at the expense of everything also set us on a perilous path.
Betty Friedan took this stark world view and popularized it for the burgeoning market of postwar educated American women who were desperately trying to apply their master’s degrees in poetry to the details of multiple loads of laundry. Women were questioning their prescribed roles, Friedan believed, and in her book she put their angst into words: “Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries . . . she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’ ”
Friedan termed this The Problem that Has No Name, and for women desiring to challenge and upend their prescribed roles in order to find their true selves, a softened version of de Beauvoir’s existentialism was certainly a handy instrument. And so, from two accidents of intellectual history—that one of the key women writers to have explored female consciousness was an existentialist, and that Betty Friedan, the great popularizer, happened to choose her to crib from—our version of feminism was reborn. The fact that our civilization was experiencing a postwar boom anyway, a materialistic wave that would sweep up men as well as women, simply meant that both genders had freedom defined for them as “self’s choices first of all”—but for women this transformation was also relabeled “feminism.”
So Second Wave Western feminism was articulated as being about the choices of the individual—the personal is political—rather than the First Wave feminists’ impersonal goal of transcendent justice. And the rest is history. Western women became really good at identifying what was crying out in their souls and kicking away hindrances to that self’s being fulfilled. Unfortunately, this message of self-assertion at all costs mingled with other messages of consumer capitalism. To those millions of newly self-asserting, newly enfranchised women—who increasingly had their own money to spend—market forces started to whisper messages about the value of consuming in certain ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, our culture told both genders that one’s “individuality” was paramount—but also that it could be expressed not only by choosing an interesting career and mate, but by choosing the right handbag, the right vacation, the right gourmet kitchenware or personal trainer or perfect highlighting.
So how surprising is it, with these messages having merged and blurred for four decades, that Western women would start to look around and think again, “Is this all?” Perhaps, 40 years on, American women have become dissatisfied with being dissatisfied.
Finding a New Harmony
I mentioned how affluent women are often puzzled—almost pitying—when I express appreciation for my life. You don’t get it, they think; you fool, you don’t have to be satisfied! In New Delhi, I was also pitied by women, but for a very different reason.