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.