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.

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."

Presented by

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

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