Though usually viewed as a violent play about turbulent marriages, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should be regarded as an early feminist text. Bonnie Finkelstein writes that the 1962 play portrays and analyzes the damaging effects of traditional, stereotypical gender roles, particularly for women; the play serves to point out how unrealistic, useless and extraordinarily damning they ultimately are.
Finkelstein notes that the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique unofficially began a re-evaluation of gender roles in the United States (Finkelstein 55). Friedan explores the idea that women need more fulfillment in their lives than can be provided by the drudgery of childrearing and housekeeping. The book also carefully lays out what society has determined to be the ideal gender role requirements for women:
“They could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training…how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting…They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights…All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.” (Friedan 15-16)
And, more specifically:
The suburban housewife…she was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home. She had found true feminine fulfillment.” (Friedan 18)
Albee echoes this, noting by contrast what the ideal men and women in 1962 should be. In other words, his characters have failed at living up to gender roles and the play shows us how this quest has destroyed them. The most shocking thing Martha does is pack away the booze: “My God, you can swill it down, can’t you.” (16) She drinks straight, tough-guy booze, like whiskey and bourbon. She no longer favors the tastes of her youth: “brandy Alexanders, crème de cacao frappes…seven-layer liqueur things…real lady-like little drinkies.” Martha once behaved as a woman should, but no longer does and this is off-putting and unsettling to George. The reason women should drink sweet-tasting but really lethal drinks is because they make women more willing to serve men sexually, as pointed out in the Paula Vogel’s feminist (and set-in-the-early 1960s) drama How I Learned to Drive: “In short avoid anything with sugar or anything with an umbrellas…don’t order anything with sexual positions in the name…I think you were conceived after one of those.” (Vogel 44)
Indeed, the 1962 woman was not in tune with or even in charge of her own sexuality; according to Friedan, women would use sexuality as a means to achieve the fulfillment they were so sorely lacking:
“Are they using sex or sexual phantasy to fill needs that are not sexual? Is that why their sex, even when it is real, seems like phantasy? Are they driven to this never-satisfied...