Why Are Divorce Memoirs Still Stuck in the 1960s?

“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own,” Betty Friedan wrote in “The Feminine Mystique,” in 1963. Taking a new role as a productive worker is “the way out of the trap,” she added. “There is no other way.”

On the final page of “This American Ex-Wife,”her 2024 memoir and study of divorce, Lyz Lenz writes: “I wanted to remove myself from the martyr’s pyre and instead sacrifice the roles I had been assigned at birth: mother, wife, daughter. I wanted to see what else I could be.”

More than 60 years after Friedan’s landmark text, there remains only one way for women to gain freedom and selfhood: rejecting the traditionally female realm, and achieving career and creative success.

Friedan’s once-provocative declaration resounds again in a popular subgenre of autobiography loosely referred to as the divorce memoir, several of which have hit best-seller lists in the past year or two. These writers’ candid, raw and moving exposés of their divorces are framed as a new frontier of women’s liberation, even as they reach for a familiar white feminist ideology that has prevailed since “The Problem That Has No Name,” through “Eat, Pray, Love” and “I’m With Her” and “Lean In”: a version of second-wave feminism that remains tightly shackled to American capitalism and its values.

Lenz, for example, spends much of her book detailing her struggle to “get free,” but never feels she needs to define freedom. It is taken as a given that freedom still means the law firm partner in heels, the self-made woman with an independent business, the best-selling author on book tour — the woman who has shed any residue of the domestic and has finally come to shine with capitalist achievement.

It is not the freedom for a woman to stay home with her child for a year, or five. The freedom to stop working after a lifetime toiling in low-wage jobs. The freedom for a Filipina nanny to watch her own children instead of those of her “liberated” American boss. The freedom to start a farm or a homestead or engage in the kind of unpaid work ignored by an economy that still values above all else the white-collar professional labor long dominated by men — and in fact mostly fails to recognize other labor as valuable at all.

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