The Feminine Mystique and dillettantism

In my last post on The Feminine Mystique, I asked why Betty Friedan seemed so gung-ho on shepherding women in the same working world that men of her era often found to be such a disheartening place. Well, towards the end of the book, Friedan addresses my exact point:

[A woman] can find identity only in work that is of real value to society—work for which, usually, our society pays. Being paid is, of course, more than a reward—it implies a definite commitment. For fear of that commitment, hundreds of able, educated suburban housewives today fool themselves about the writer or actress they might have been, or dabble at art or music in the dilettante’s limbo of “self-enrichment,” or apply for jobs as receptionists or saleswomen, jobs well below their actual abilities. These are also ways of evading growth.

The “arts” seem, at first glance, to be the ideal answer for a woman. They can, after all, be practiced in the home. They do not necessarily imply that dreaded professionalism, they are suitably feminine, and seem to offer endless room for personal growth and identity, with no need to compete in society for pay. But I have noticed that when women do not take up painting or ceramics seriously enough to become professionals—to be paid for their work, or for teaching it to others, and to be recognized as a peer by other professionals—sooner or later, they cease dabbling; the Sunday painting, the idle ceramics do not bring that needed sense of self when they are of no value to anyone else. The amateur or dilettante whose own work is not good enough for anyone to want to pay to hear or see or read does not gain real status by it in society, or real personal identity. These are reserved for those who have made the effort, acquired the knowledge and expertise to become professionals.

I both agree and disagree with Friedan on this. I agree that it is difficult for a person to derive meaning in life from dabbling or amateurism. But I also don’t think that there are enough top-level professional jobs in the world to provide meaning to all the people who need it (…which is, like, everyone, right?) If it’s not possible to find meaning as a receptionist, then that’s kind of a problem, right? Because there are always going to be receptionists and saleswomen.

And if the only way to find meaning is to be a “professional”–meaning paid–artist or politician or scientist or doctor then that’s a huge problem, because the world just doesn’t need that many professionals. In fact, for most artistic production, it barely needs anyone at all. If only 500 novels came out in America every year, the vast majority of Americans–including most of those who read novels for pleasure–wouldn’t notice. That’s not good or bad, it’s just how things are. The production of art for money is always going to be an elite act. And it’s the same with politics or science or anything else you can imagine.

Friedan seems to say that the amount of meaning that a job provides is somehow equivalent with its status. She says: “The amateur or dilettante whose own work is not good enough for anyone to want to pay to hear or see or read does not gain real status by it in society, or real personal identity.”

But getting a high-status job is really, really, really hard. Every high-status profession (and I certainly do count ‘writer’ as a high-status profession) in America is marked by a tremendous number of aspirants as compared to practitioners. Friedan seems to imply that the majority of those aspirants are doomed to have no meaning in their lives. They’re out of luck.

So…yeah, that kind of troubles me. But on the other hand, I see Friedan’s point. I spent five years as a dabbler and dilettante of a writer (although I guess by her definition, I still am one, since I am definitely not a professional), and although the dream of being a writer was a pleasant enough daydream, it certainly did not fulfill me in the way that my writing activities do nowadays.

As I was saying to a friend today, there is a deep power in purposefulness. In most of my life and for most of my life, I’ve only worked at about 20% capacity. Only in the last few years have I learned what it’s like to work really hard.

It’s fun. And what’s more, there’s a definite level of satisfaction in laying down to sleep and being able to say to myself, “Today was a perfect day; I did everything that I needed to do.”

I don’t think you get that from amateurism. Or at least, I didn’t.

I think it’s a shame that for most people, purposefulness is so bound up in the economic system. We’re socialized to think that our purposefulness can only really be employed at the behest of an authority figure: a teacher or a boss or, perhaps, a child.

I’m glad to have found a way to be purposeful that does not involve too much overt interference from the outside world. I’ve never been a serious hobbyist, but I wonder if sports players or serious World of Warcraft gamers or fanfic writers or model trainset builders are also tapping into this same well of purposefulness. Some of them display a level of dedication and perfectionism that seems to exceed the effort that most people put into their jobs.

If hobbies can unlock purposefulness, I wonder if they might not be a better route for pursuing meaning than the professions. With the proliferation of hobbies, there are many more ‘slots’ for high achievers. As a casual gamer, I can appreciate the dedication of some insanely good gamer. I can pay him with respect (and maybe by dying to him online, repeatedly), but he can feel rewarded without necessarily requiring monetary attention.

Of course, it all circles back to failure. Does the joy of purposefulness hinge upon success? Certainly, my own joy in my writing has deepened with each success I’ve had. Is there something about the success that fuels the joy? Or does the joy come from the deep immersion in the activity itself?

I’m not sure. My feeling is that, for me, purposefulness depends on a sense that I am progressing towards some goal. I think that if I ever come to realize that success is impossible, then my happiness will substantially decrease. But I also think that I could happily spend my life pursuing a success that never actually materialized.

Comments (



%d bloggers like this: