The Mystique of Betty Friedan

She helped to change not only the thinking but the lives of many American women, but recent books throw into question the intellectual and personal sources of her work.
More

WRITING social criticism is uncomfortably similar to selling life insurance. Your potential readers may not even want to think about your subject, and, to make things more difficult, you have to persuade them to sit still for disquieting information about it. If you can manage that, you then have to reassure them that you have the right answers. And it's a brutally competitive business. An awful lot of critics are out there making a pitch. Yet only a few break through and change the world.

One who did was Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963, remains one of the most powerful works of popular nonfiction written in America. Not only did the book sell in the millions but it has long been credited with launching the contemporary feminist movement. How did Friedan do it? For one thing, she told a compelling personal story about her own career choices -- one that resonated with the experiences of her readers.

But Friedan also translated the ideas of academics -- many of them European refugees from Nazism -- into the language of popular culture. An outstanding student at Smith College, who for a time pursued a graduate degree in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, Friedan introduced her readers to the nature-versus-nurture debate and functionalist sociology. Americans, for all their cynical anti-intellectualism, crave the authority of experts. And Friedan cited experts aplenty, as her copious and very academic footnotes attest. Freud came in for sustained criticism in her pages; Abraham Maslow came in for extended praise. Friedan also paid close attention to the writings of other scholars, including Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and Bruno Bettelheim.

And there's the rub. In the thirty-six years since The Feminine Mystique appeared, much has been written challenging the authority of the sources on which Friedan relied, raising the uncomfortable question of whether a book can arrive at the larger truths if the bricks on which it is built won't stand up to time.

To examine the foundations of The Feminine Mystique one can begin with Margaret Mead. Friedan preferred the more anthropological Margaret Mead of Coming of Age in Samoa to the more Freudian author of Male and Female. In her anthropological fieldwork Mead had discovered, according to Friedan, a "vision of the infinite variety of sexual patterns and the enormous plasticity of human nature." This was "a truly revolutionary vision of women finally free to realize their full capabilities in a society which replaced arbitrary sexual definitions with a recognition of genuine individual gifts as they occur in either sex." But that is not the vision that America chose to see. Indeed, it is not even the vision that Margaret Mead ultimately chose to see: Friedan criticized Mead's later work, arguing that it, unlike her studies in the South Seas, owed far too much to Freud to offer anything pathbreaking to women. Mead, Friedan concluded, wound up strengthening, not challenging, the feminine mystique. To be sure, she led a wonderfully free and feminist life. More the shame, then, that "she cut down her own vision of women by glorifying the mysterious miracle of femininity."

When Alfred Kinsey first came to the attention of the reading public, in Friedan's account, he was wrongly cited for having demonstrated that uneducated women were more sexually satisfied than educated women -- a finding that, if true, would have given plenty of ammunition to all those who believed that it was a mistake to educate women in the first place. But this finding, Friedan informed her readers, was not true. Once Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) was finally published and we had access to the full 5,940 case histories of women in Kinsey's archives, we knew that education was no barrier to orgasm.

Despite her joy at discovering that Kinsey's research confirmed her sense that women were not being punished sexually for getting out of the house and getting an education, Friedan was bothered by his findings. For one thing, those women were having a lot of sex outside marriage, and Friedan, puritanical in these matters, felt that sex was a form of escapism for middle-class women who ought to be working rather than having affairs. Kinsey also reported that he found a seemingly large number of male homosexuals in America. Friedan was certain that "the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene" was due to the "parasitical mother-love" of all those bored suburban women who were kept out of the workplace. The situation was, in her view, rather distasteful, because "homosexuals often lack the maturity to finish school and make sustained professional commitments." We could be sure this was true because Kinsey told us so. He had "found homosexuality most common among men who do not go beyond high school, and least common among college graduates."

Because suburban women were so frustrated and unhappy, Friedan dramatically compared them to the inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Here her authority was the distinguished psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, whose The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age was published three years before The Feminine Mystique. Friedan was impressed with Bettelheim's emphasis not only on the physical brutality of the camps but also on the psychological manipulation by which they functioned. In the camps, as she described his findings, one lost all autonomy and came to identify with one's oppressors. Indeed, as Friedan wrote, it was "not the SS but the prisoners themselves" who "became their own worst enemy."

Although she called the chapter in which she discussed Bettelheim "Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp," Friedan was clear that American women were not on their way to the gas chambers; Bettelheim, after all, had written about "a real concentration camp." And precisely because the incidents he described were real, they became "unforgettable" -- none more so than the powerfully evoked case of a dancer who, when ordered by an SS officer to dance, got close enough to shoot him dead before being killed in turn. Still, Friedan could not give up the analogy. Like Bettelheim's fellow inmates in Dachau and Buchenwald, suburban women had "learned to 'adjust' to their biological role," had "become dependent, passive, childlike," had "given up their adult frame of reference to live at the lower human level of food and things." Maybe the world so chillingly brought to life by Bettelheim was not so different from suburbia after all.

AT a time when commercial houses are reluctant to publish serious nonfiction, it is bracing to realize that a 1963 best seller could have a chapter title like "The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud." (When I taught Friedan's book in one of my classes recently, none of the students in the room knew what "solipsism" meant.) In discussing serious ideas from the academic world, Friedan accomplished what her editors at the women's magazines to which she contributed never let her do, which was to assume that her readers had the intelligence to read and absorb scholarly authority. How ironic, then, that much of the impressive scholarship she amassed turned out to be seriously compromised.

Margaret Mead may have discovered in Samoa a form of sexuality that in its promiscuity and lack of guilt constituted an alternative to puritanical conventions, but the discovery had little to do with reality. One need not accept the sociobiological determinism of Mead's critic Derek Freeman to recognize that he has undermined the empirical claims of Coming of Age in Samoa. In The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (1999), Freeman shows in detail how Mead's most important informant, a young product of a culture that placed great emphasis on female virginity before marriage, was so embarrassed by Mead's probing that she responded in typical Samoan fashion by jokingly telling Mead the opposite of the truth. Meanwhile, Mead, who had shirked her investigations into sexuality in order to write an ethnology of Samoa for the Bishop Museum, in Hawaii, accepted the hoax as true, not only because it confirmed her theory that sexuality is shaped by culture more than by nature but also because she could thereby cut short her research and set off to meet her husband in France.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alan Wolfe is the director of The Center for Religion and American Public Life, at Boston College.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In