Into the Mystique: Betty Friedan’s Feminist Classic at 50

Betty Friedan.

Betty Friedan.

“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?’”

This is the opening paragraph of The Feminine Mystique (W.W. Norton, 592 pp., $25.95), which the late Betty Friedan published 50 years ago this month. The feminine mystique, she wrote, “says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.” This was, Friedan argued, what kept a generation of educated women at home, raising children in the suburbs, endlessly cleaning house, tranquilizing themselves with new kitchen appliances, alcohol and affairs in order to kill the existential dread this emptiness brought on. It was, according to Friedan, propagated by psychologists, sociologists, ad men, magazine editors, religious leaders and college presidents. And, if her interviews with women were to be believed, it was widespread and suffocating. Rise up and throw it over, Friedan said. Get to work, and stop viewing college as a marriage market.

Well, we did. Friedan and the women’s movement of the ’60s and ’70s helped create a world where women see a fulfilling profession as an inalienable right. This book, then, 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.

Here is one from the book’s first pages: “Experts told [women] how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry … how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with your own hands …”

Feminine Mystique with blk borderExchange “building a swimming pool with your own hands” for “building a seven-tier wedding cake with your own hands,” and one may think immediately of the hundreds of blogs that address cooking, mothering, decorating and dressing, and then wonder if, despite these blogs’ cheerful tone, a version of the feminine mystique isn’t now being perpetrated through ostensibly real, ostensibly relatable women soft-focusing their sailor tee’d baby bumps through Instagram.

And here, substitute “an evolutionary purpose” for the mention of Freud: “It was easier to look for Freudian sexual roots in man’s behavior, his ideas and his wars than to look critically at his society and act constructively to right its wrongs.”

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.

Friedan called the mystique “the problem with no name.” Fifty years later, we are able to spot a problem, name it and speak up to change it, or stop it. But when a woman broadcasts her dissatisfaction, her yearning, it is now likely to be dismissed as whining, because if she’s eating three meals a day and doesn’t have cancer, what’s her problem? Such is progress.

Even The New York Times’s Gail Collins, in her introduction to this anniversary edition, is guilty of this attitude. Ms. Collins quotes Friedan’s famous first paragraph, and then writes: “It sounds, in retrospect, a little whiny, but at the time it was an earthshaking query.” How disappointing that Ms. Collins, the Times’s eminently sensible resident feminist, reached for the pejorative language so often used when a person not benefiting from the patriarchy or capitalism dares to question the order of things. (“Women are angry,” went a recent column about the “War on Men” on the Fox News website. “They’re also defensive, though often unknowingly.”) In America, there are no systemic problems, just poor choices.

This kind of thinking is doubtless what’s stalling forward movement in addressing the dire need for better family policy. It would be a shame if women—and men—had to wait 50 more years before our capitalist mystique went the way of the feminine mystique. It would be terrible if it required smuggling that idea into a vampire novel for it to go viral.

editorial@observer.com