A Look Back at “The Feminine Mystique”

If you were to pick up The Feminine Mystique today, I suspect you’d wonder what all the fuss was about. Written in 1963, it was directed at college-educated, married white women who felt strangely unsatisfied with their lives for no good reason. They had achieved the American Dream–a husband, children, a comfortable home, enough money. All the trappings of a successful nuclear family.

But something wasn’t right for many of them, and author Betty Friedan identified it for them. It was “the problem with no name” that denied women the opportunities for realize their full human potential. Basically, women had been sold a bill of goods.

Almost 50 years later,social historian Stephanie Coontz has written A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, a sort of biography of Friedan’s groundbreaking book. Coontz describes the era in which it was written and explores its impact on women and men at the time. For women, Friedan’s book and an earlier article she wrote for Good Housekeeping, “Women Are People, too,” opened the floodgates. Hundreds wrote to her, many with the same sentiments: “I felt the article was written for me” or “I am one of the people you wrote about” or “Now I know I am not alone.”

Feminists in the 21st century, however, might find some parts of the book simplistic, elitist, homophobic and sexist. Some of Friedan’s attitudes are not only dated but odious. She denigrated housekeeping, imploring her readers to get careers and let others do the menial work, never thinking about the women who would do that work. She didn’t address the problems faced by working-class women who labored out of economic necessity and still took care of the home. She warned of “the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.” (But, in fairness, I remember being at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977 when Friedan signaled a change of heart by seconding a lesbian rights resolution that everyone had assumed she’d oppose.)

While it’s true that she was elitist and initially homophobic, Friedan did speak to those women who were experiencing “the problem with no name” and afraid to ask the question, “Is this all?” Think of the angst felt by the women portrayed in Mad Men.

I have to confess that I hadn’t read The Feminine Mystique before I joined NOW in the early 1970s. I wasn’t going to be a housewife. The culture had changed, and the book no longer seemed relevant. But after joining NOW, I met many women who had been moved by the book. While Friedan didn’t expressly call for women to join organizations and demand their rights, she did shine a light on their personal darkness and let them see the oppression surrounding them. Her writing moved many to try to change their lives. Coontz says,

The Feminine Mystique electrified a layer of women ‘in between,’ women who might otherwise have been lost entirely, to themselves and to the women’s movement.

Those women who were swept into the Women’s Movement were forever changed by their involvement–as was American society. As an activist myself in NOW, I know how valuable their contributions were. They were smart, energetic, enthusiastic and put their talents to use to advance the cause of women’s equality. As we talked in our “rap sessions” and planned demonstrations and rallies, we of a later generation changed, too. Women with college educations got to know women with calloused hands. Women with children and nannies formed friendships with lesbians. Divorced women marched alongside single women. African American women demonstrated with former nuns.

There would have been a Women’s Movement without The Feminine Mystique, but there would have been holes where those women described in the book should have been.

Comments

  1. socialjerk says:

    I read "The Feminine Mystique" my freshman year of college, which was in 2001. My mom also read it during her freshman year of college as well, which was in 1968. I appreciated reading it so much, not really because it opened my eyes so much, but because of what it had done for my mother. She told me about reading that book, thinking, "Oh my God. Why DOES my mother do all the housework? Why is my father's job so much more important?" It was funny to think of my mother not having really considered this before, considering how she raised me. And I love that I have Betty Friedan to thank for a lot of that.

    • Carol King says:

      That's exactly why the book was so important. Betty Friedan really did facilitate an awakening in so many women (and some men) of that time.

  2. Just read Feminine Mystique recently and found that it remains quite relevant to today despite the well-deserved criticisms of being "simplistic, elitist, homophobic and sexist."

    I was most struck by her discussion of what compelled the acceptance of the mystique in the 1950s. She wrote, "We were all vulnerable, homesick, lonely, frightened. A pent-up hunger for marriage, home, and children was felt simultaneously by several generations; a hunger which in the prosperity of the post-war America, everyone could satisfy."

    I wonder if, in a post 9/11, two war, great recession world, we are not at risk of reaffirming the same values and consequently reverting to the mystique…

    Thoughts?

    • Carol King says:

      You raise an interesting issue. My immediate reaction is that we've come too far to go back but I'm not so sure about that. Remember what happened to women after the men came home from World War II. However, I think in the current economy, which doesn't look like it'll improve for a while, women can ill afford to quit working outside the home. Maybe what will is men will take over more household responsibilities and women won't be quite as overwhelmed as they've been in the past when they had to do all the housework whether they were employed outside the home or not. I hope…

  3. Despite its faults, there ought to be a special award for people who give a name and a spotlight to an unease that is tormenting people.

    I felt the same way the first time I heard Howard Dean speaking against the Iraq War at the very beginning. Until we heard him, some of us thought we were crazy.

  4. Susan Cope says:

    You've got it right! What matters from this vantage is the way she widened horizons, not the way she herself wore homophobic or sexist blinders.

  5. I think you underestimate the impact of Betty Friedan. She spoke publically about a situation that women lived privately in their own "sphere". She validated the existence of women who are intelligent and find it boring to stay home and keep house. It wasn't Friedan who denigrated housework. Society does so. It's unpaid labor along with child care, and as a consequence, undervalued. Friedan's words did spark a revolution.

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