Reconsiderations: Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique

Resident Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers
Resident Scholar
Christina Hoff Sommers

"Groundbreaking." "A landmark." "A classic." Those are the words now commonly used to describe Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," first published in 1963. Friedan "pulled the trigger on history," wrote futurist Alvin Toffler; feminist admirers refer to it as "The Book." "The Feminine Mystique" sold more than 2 million copies when it came out, and remains a staple in women's studies classes today. But after nearly half a century, does it live up to its reputation? Rereading it, I find it to be both better and much worse than I remembered.

Striking, certainly, is the famed opening passage, where Friedan introduces the "problem that has no name":

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night--she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question--Is this all?

For the next 450 pages, Friedan, who died in 2006, answered that question: No, it is not all. "What happened to [women's] dreams?" she asked. What happened to their "share in the whole of human destiny?" What happened, according to Friedan, is that women's magazines, advertisers, and an army of Freudian social scientists conspired to persuade American women that the fulfillment of their femininity was their truest and highest calling.

Friedan later regretted her animus toward stay-at-home mothers, but it stuck. Pick up almost any modern women's studies textbook and you will find the life of a homemaker ridiculed, even savaged.

Friedan built her case with statistics, horror stories, women's testimonials, and anecdotes from her own life. She cited (sometimes approvingly and sometimes scathingly) leading thinkers of her day, among them Margaret Mead, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, Erik Erikson, and Abraham Maslow. The book can feel dated, and not only because of its many references to mostly forgotten writers. It reads a lot like one of those overwrought, conspiracy-obsessed works from the '40s and '50s--Philip Wylie's "Generation of Vipers" and Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders," for instance. In "The Feminine Mystique," Friedan shares their penchant for portentous generalization: "[A] progressively weaker core of human self . . . is being handed down to [our] sons and daughters at a time when the dehumanizing aspects of modern mass culture make it necessary for men and women to have a strong core of self . . ."

But her essential point was both down-to-earth and true: Postwar America had taken the ideal of femininity to absurd extremes. Women in the '50s were encouraged to be childlike, passive, dependent, and "fluffy" (Friedan's word). Popular magazines carried stories with titles such as "Do Women Have to Talk So Much?", "Femininity Begins at Home," and "Why GIs Prefer Those German Girls." Adlai Stevenson, the liberal politician and diplomat, condescendingly advised the Smith College graduating class of 1955 that it was their destiny to participate in politics and world affairs through their roles as wives and mothers. "Women," he said, "especially educated women, have a unique opportunity to influence us, boy and man." The Freudian analyst Marynia Farnham and her co-author Ferdinand Lundberg warned women against the dangers of careers and education: "The more educated the woman is, the greater chance there is of sexual disorder." Helene Deutsch, another esteemed Freudian, told women there was a price to be paid for too much education: "Woman's intellectuality is to a large extent paid for by the loss of valuable feminine qualities . . . the intellectual woman is masculinized: her warm intuitive knowledge has yielded to cold unproductive thinking."

Friedan--a stocky, disheveled, volatile Jewish iconoclast from Peoria, Ill.--had no patience for such nonsense. She jeered at the aggressive pseudo-scientific protagonists of a mindless total femininity--at a time when the rest of the country was listening respectfully to their words. Her book drives home the age-old feminist insight that women must live "not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world."

Unlike some of her followers, Friedan did not rage against men. And her politics were moderate. Though she had worked as a labor journalist for a Marxist-inspired movement called the Popular Front, there was nothing Marxist about her solution to the "problem that has no name." She urged women to go back to school and into the workplace. A woman needs a job, she said: "a job that she can take seriously as part of a life plan, work in which she can grow as part of society." It was a simple suggestion and, for millions of women, one that has stood the test of time.

But in building her case, Friedan made a fatal mistake that undermined her book's appeal at the time and permanently weakened the movement it helped create. She not only attacked a postwar culture that aggressively consigned women to the domestic sphere, but she attacked the sphere itself--along with all the women who chose to live there.

Friedan described herself as "Diogenes with his lamp," going from suburb to suburb in search of a mentally sound housewife. (None could be found, she concluded.) The job of housewife, in her estimation, was intrinsically unworthy and undignified, an occupation best suited to "feeble-minded girls." She called the suburban home a "comfortable concentration camp" where women suffer a "slow death of mind and spirit." Like the inmates of the camps, she said, American suburban housewives had become "walking corpses."

That sort of language didn't sound any less ludicrous back then than it does now and, looking back, Friedan's lamp seems less illuminating than incendiary. When McCall's magazine printed excerpts from "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963, it received hundreds of letters--overwhelmingly negative. Letter writers found Friedan snobbish and condescending. "Stop knocking the homemaker," wrote one. Another: "I am a proud and fulfilled wife, mother, daughter, sister, trying to live up to my purpose of being here on earth; no small nor ignominious task I can assure you."

Erma Bombeck, the humorist and columnist who wrote about the foibles of suburban motherhood, says in her 1993 memoir "A Marriage Made in Heaven . . . Or Too Tired for an Affair" that in the mid-sixties, she and her friends in Columbus, Ohio, had been attracted to Friedan and to her message, but found it too sweeping, humorless, and unforgiving of ordinary women. In a 1984 interview, Bombeck said of Friedan and her allies, "These women threw a war for themselves and didn't invite any of us. That was very wrong of them."

Women who abhorred the domestic sphere would indeed find a powerful ally in Friedan and would eventually be well-represented by groups such as the National Organization for Women, founded by Friedan in 1966. But the McCall letter writers, along with Bombeck and her friends, and surely at least some 1955 Smith graduates, badly needed a women's movement to represent them, too. They were left out by Friedan, and the modern feminist movement she inspired never found a place for them.

Friedan later regretted her animus toward stay-at-home mothers, but it stuck. Pick up almost any modern women's studies textbook and you will find the life of a homemaker ridiculed, even savaged. No wonder the feminist establishment so often seems disconnected from the mainstream of American women.

Betty Friedan did indeed pull the trigger on history--but she also took aim at the lives of millions of American women. Her book was a classic and a landmark for both good and ill: In writing modern feminism's first textbook, she was also the author of modern feminism's Original Sin.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.

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