Saturday Afternoon Reads: The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan

Good Afternoon!

I decided to focus this post on something other than the debt, deficit, sequester obsession that has taken over American politics, so I’m writing about a book I read in high school that changed my life forever. Feel free to use this as an open thread, and post your links freely in the comments.

This week marked the 50th anniversary of a book that truly changed my life, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. It was first published on February 19, 1963. I read it in paperback when I was a junior in high school, probably in early 1964.

I already knew I didn’t want to be a housewife like my mom, but there weren’t many alternatives for girls in those days. Ideally, you were supposed to get married and have children and forget about having a career or focusing on your own unique interests. You were supposed to enjoy cleaning house and supporting your husband’s career and if you didn’t enjoy it, there was something wrong with you–you weren’t a real woman.

The main reason for girls to go to college was to find a husband. Oh sure, you could study and learn about things that interest you, but that would all go by the wayside once you found a man. After that, it was all about him. If you couldn’t find a husband, then you might have to work. You could be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary–that was about it. Women who insisted on being college professors, doctors, lawyers were few and far between and they had a tough time of it.

Then Betty Friedan’s book came out, and it hit a nerve for millions of American women and girls, including me. Here’s the famous opening paragraph:

“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 20th 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?’”

Friedan called it “the problem with no name.”

First edition of Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (Bauman Rare Books)

First edition of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (Bauman Rare Books)

As I read the book, I began to develop more sympathy for my mother’s plight. During World War II, women had been called upon to go to work to support the war effort and replace men who had been drafted or had enlisted in the military. But when the men came back, they needed the jobs and women were expected to go back to their homes and be satisfied with doing housework, child rearing, decorating, and entertaining for no pay. Friedan wrote about how “experts” had produced reams of propaganda in the effort to get women to find joy and fulfillment in being housewives and mothers. The “feminist mystique” for Friedan said “that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.”

I’ve told this story before, but when I was a senior in high school I wrote an essay for my English class called “Women Are People Too.” My male teacher was somewhat taken aback by my arguments, but he still asked me to read my paper aloud in class. I was jeered and mock for it, of course. Later my economics teacher–a true leftist–found out about the essay and read it in my economic class. Today it seems strange, but most of the other students in my school were horrified by the notion of women being equal to men.

My father, an English professor, had a woman colleague Lucille C.–a full professor who had never married. My mother said that most men would be intimidated by her brilliance and success. Anyway, when I told Lucille about how all the other kids were making fun of me for my essay, she told me to tell them I was a member of FOMA, which stood for “Future Old Maids of America.” I loved it!

Much has changed since 1963. Women now assume they have a right to an education and a career as a well as the right to choose (if they can afford it) whether to stay home with children or work outside the home. But as we have seen in the past four plus years, misogyny is alive and well in the good ol’ USA, and we still have a very long way to go to achieve anything like real gender equality.

Carlene Bauer spoke for me when she wrote at The New York Observer:

When Friedan writes that early feminists “had to prove that women were human,” it is hard not to feel a shock of recognition and indict our own moment as well, especially after the election that just passed. But American women still find themselves struggling against a strangely virulent, insidious misogyny. If our culture truly thought women were human, 19 states would not have enacted provisions to restrict abortion last year. There would be no question whether to renew the Violence Against Women Act. Women would not make 77 cents to every man’s dollar, and make less than our male counterparts even in fields where we dominate. We wouldn’t have terms like “legitimate rape” or “personhood.” Women who decided not to have children would not be called “selfish,” as if they were themselves children who had a problem with sharing. If our culture truly allowed them to have strong, complex, contradictory feelings and believed they were sexual creatures for whom pleasure was a biological right, perhaps adult women would not be escaping en masse into badly written fantasy novels about teenage girls being ravished by vampires.

Bauer also noted that some problems with the book, most notably Friedan’s homophobia.

This book…should seem thrillingly, relievedly quaint. It does not. But it is surprisingly boring in spots—there are many moments where you can see the women’s magazine writer in Friedan giving herself over to breathless exhortation—and astoundingly homophobic. At one point Friedan rails against “the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.” Friedan has been criticized for not being as careful a researcher, or as honest a storyteller, or as civil-rights-minded as she could have been. But perhaps these criticisms are somewhat beside the point. There are numerous passages that, if you did not know their provenance, could be mistaken for sentences written in judgment of the present day.

In looking over The Feminine Mystique recently, I realized that I had forgotten how much scholarship and psychological analysis and scholarship Friedan included in the book. She was a psychology major at Smith College, graduating summa cum laude in 1942. For example, The Feminine Mystique contained a brilliant analysis of Freudian theory and its consequences for women. Friedan argued that education at women’s colleges had been dumbed down between the 1940s and 1960s, with educators limiting courses to “subjects deemed suitable for women” and their future roles as housewives. She suggested that girls were prevented from experiencing the normative identity crisis that was the focus of Erik Erikson’s developmental theory. And she argued that women had been kept at the lower, subsistence levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

How many books truly change society in dramatic ways. Betty Friedan’s book did that. A few more links to articles on the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique.

Michelle Bernard: Betty Friedan and black women: Is it time for a second look?

NYT: Criticisms of a Classic Abound

Mona Gable at BlogHer: How Far Have We Come?

ABC News: ‘Feminine Mystique’: 50 Years Later, Dated But Not Irrelevant

Caryl Rivers: ‘Feminine Mystique’ At 50: If Betty Friedan Could See Us Now

Janet Maslin: Looking Back at a Domestic Cri de Coeur

Alexandra Petri: The Feminist Mystique

Peter Dreier: The Feminine Mystique and Women’s Equality — 50 Years Later

Kathi Wolfe at The Washington Blade: Power of the ‘Feminine Mystique’

A discussion at NPR’s On Point: The Feminine Mystique at 50

This isn’t specifically about The Feminine Mystique, but I think it’s relevant. Allie Grasgreen at Inside Higher Ed: ‘The Rise of Women’ — a “new book explains why women outpace men in higher education.”

Please use this as an open thread, and post anything you like in the comments.

40 Comments on “Saturday Afternoon Reads: The Feminine Mystique”

  1. ANonOMouse says:

    Freidan’s need to even address homosexuality was likely a compensation strategy. The behind closed door rumor of that era was often that if a woman failed to marry she was either “frigid”, “homely” or a “lesbian”. Even in being single men had an overwhelming advantage because single men were envied by other men as free-wheeling bachelors, single women were, as you say BB, “old-maids” or “lesbians”.

    • RalphB says:

      Hi Mouse, Looks like the admin is pushing hard for civil rights.

      SCOTUSblog: DOMA: U.S. takes tough line on marriage denial

      The Obama administration, in a sweeping defense of marriage rights for same-sex couples, argued on Friday that the denial by states of those rights over the last decade is proof that discrimination against gays and lesbians still continues. The brief cited California’s flat ban on such marriages — Proposition 8 — as an example of the ongoing problem of bias against homosexuals.

  2. RalphB says:

    I don’t know from the Feminine Mystique, but I like Michelle Obama on Jimmy Fallon.

  3. RalphB says:

    This Week in God Incredibly OT but Steve Benen is funny and there’s a completely hilarious video in this post.

  4. HT says:

    BB all your remembrances of the time reflect mine – of course we are approximately the same age. I hesitate to include instances of my mother, because I’ve been attacked before here for harping on her, however she was brilliant and harnessed by the cultural reins of the day. I married very young just because it was expected and I didn’t see any other way out, but I hated the fact that it appeared that I had no choice. Then I read Betty and voila, I felt there were other women out there – that I was not alone. Yes I agree that there were numerous places that she chould have been more inclusive, but at the time she was a lifeline for those of us who didn’t want to be June Cleaver, who felt we had more to offer and more to learn. I worry about today’s young women who are oblivious to the fact that their rights to self determination are being legislated away. Wake up women. If you don’t fight to retain rights, you will loose them given the legislation that is being enacted to restrict your right to make decisions for yourself, to retain autonomy over your own bodies.

  5. RalphB says:

    Sen Charles Grasseley is not only dumber than a box of rocks, he’s also a despicable racist

    INDIANOLA, Iowa — Republicans have offered a number of reasons why they oppose the Violence Against Women Act. Some think it’s unconstitutional. Others argue that it’s just a meaningless bill with a patriotic title.

    On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) added a new one: Native Americans supposedly aren’t capable of holding fair trials.

    GRASSLEY: One provision that non-Native Americans can be tried in tribal court. And why is that a big thing? Because of the constitutionality of it, for two reasons. One, you know how the law is, that if you have a jury, the jury is supposed to be a reflection of society. […] So you get non-Indians, let me say to make it easy, you get non-Indians going into a reservation and violating a woman. They need to be prosecuted. They aren’t prosecuted. So the idea behind [VAWA] is we’ll try them in tribal court. But under the laws of our land, you got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.

    Nothing he said there is correct, not one bit of it.

    • bostonboomer says:


      • bostonboomer says:

        BTW, that’s the excuse most of the Repubs are using. If they’re so worried about all those white men, why don’t they keep them off the reservations so they can’t rape Native American women?

      • RalphB says:

        Then the Repubs must have a problem with the Sixth Amendment and court precedent. But it sounds good, I guess, if you’re wearing a tri-corner hat,

  6. bostonboomer says:

    Chris Hayes was invited to be part of a panel that includes Ralph Reed.

    • RalphB says:

      Good answer on his part. GOProud may be vile but it’s still discrimatory to not let them sponsor.

  7. purplefinn says:

    Nicely done, BB. Love the title “Women Are People Too.” That says it all. It fits with my favorite definition of feminism too – the radical notion that women are human.

    • RalphB says:

      One of these is not alike.

      a) Women
      b) Men
      c) Corporations

    • bostonboomer says:

      Thanks, Purplefinn. I still have that essay somewhere, because it was included in a student publication. My mom sent me all that stuff a few years ago.

  8. Fannie says:

    Luv me some 60’s…………….I kinda got my big start with my mile high hair do, one of those bouffants. Even had some butterick sewing patterns to keep me in style, little hand work embroidery on those jeans. Then I had the match schitt………..rayon step ins, and garter belts, and bra, bags and shoes to go with………all the same color, schitt. What was all that schitt, to wear and not what to wear, and being judged by my size, and my color. I was small back then, now I’m a giant, schitt, and I am a stepping out. I remember, plain jane, and all of a sudden, I was free to be, me and my fringy, trippy thingy. All of a sudden dishingwashing had a new meaning, talk about newfound art. I started sky dancing, and told the bride in me to sit it out in corner, wasn’t gonna be no homemaker for awhile. There I was growing up………..and aspiring to be me, with the book in hand, and music in my mind, smoking and drinking and feeling mighty fine.

    • HT says:

      Fannie – your hair actually made a boufant? I’m jealous. Butterick patterns – I’ve was going for the Vogue although I think Simplicity was the best I could do. I was considered “big” in those days – five foot six and one hundred and three pounds, so anyone who thinks that the craze for anorexic models in recent has no historical knowledge about the treatment of women. You handled the transition much better than I did. I didn’t really know what I wanted, because girls had never been offered anything other than June Cleaverville, yet I knew there was something more. It took me quite a long time – but I made it – finally. Now I worry about my daughter and her friends. BTW I still smoke and drink, but I have fabulous insurance so my twosome will inherit and I will continue to enjoy my vices – in private of course.

      • Fannie says:

        Haha…………we just turned around, and it was gone huh. Most of us did “make it”……I made it being a secretary to help pay for college, and I was thinking that I made all of $1.35 an hour.
        $85 dollars seem to go along way back then. I worked couple jobs, on weekends I took movies from one theatre to the other. Then came the FACTORY……………I pitted peaches, and worked Delmonte to help me in summer, that was when the mass murderer I worked close to, Juan Corona was around, gives me the creeps thinking about it. When I later married, I dropped off the face of earth, and left it all behind. Raised my kids, and just about 15 years ago I realized I hadn’t come that far after all. The discrimination came back with a double squeeze, and I still can’t believe that women are a good part of the problem, they turned on other women, and here we are still fighting for equal wages for equal work. My granddaughter will never know about Butterick and Vogue, but she’ll have to do more lifting than I wanted her to do, because of the impact of what is going on in this country. It will prohibit her in more ways, and I just hope she has what we fight for, human rights.

      • HT says:

        Hey Fannie, if our children and grandchildren have an ounce of what made us survive, then if they can figure out how to use it, they will survive. We did against all odds. They will if they have the intelligence and will to do better that we had. If not, that is their problem. I worry as I know you do, that they won’t be cognizant enough, but really when push comes to shove, we told them this would happen. If they weren’t listening, they will have to fight for the same rights we fought for years ago. Their loss, although it breaks my heart to type that.

  9. Sweet Sue says:

    We can’t judge Betty Friedan by 2013 standards, anymore than Abraham Lincoln.
    Both helped us all to make giant leaps in consciousness.

  10. Fannie says:

    Sweet Sue, we can totally sky dance with her.

    • HT says:

      Just for you Fannie. The song that finally helped me to find my way back to living. Mind you it didn’t totally work, but it was a start.

      • Delphyne says:

        Thanks, HT – loved hearing that again and it’s still appropriate.

      • Fannie says:

        How’d I forget Diana Ross……….that was good to hear. I always thought of myself being a wild child, and running wild in 1960’s. And it was the 70’s that I became more intune to myself. I remember when Betty’s first issue of NOW magazine came out. Like her book, and N.O.W., and Ms. Magazine, she was our bible, it was all about me and my sisters. And the best thing, we weren’t alone, millions joined in, and it was “our turn”. You know part of what happened was changing the laws, and being a part of that, only to know that people are discarding the very laws that created a revolution of change for this country.

  11. I have a song…from 2000:

  12. Silent Kate says:

    I think Title IX really changed many things in the movement of women into more diverse job choices. However, I see a push today for women to be back home taking care of their children and man to make room for a lowering of unemployment. I also see such a strong emphasis on the overt sexualization of women to the point that I am still reminded of the old commercial of the woman frying bacon and never letting him forget he is a man!. I think it was a Virginia Slims commercial. Women are still treated like toy objects to be objectified by men and some women see themselves solely in this capacity. There are far too many cases of women killed by their boyfriends for me to believe women understand their own personhood let alone these freaky men that kill them and treat them like something they own. If we, as women, are to be truly equal we have to band together and remove the crazy politicians from office and leave the nutty boyfriends even if it means being alone!

  13. Fannie says:

    I’m ready for ERA………….let’s do it.