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.

By Alan Wolfe

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.

If Mead was wrong, then so were all those who built their cases upon hers. For Friedan, the hoaxing of Margaret Mead was particularly unfortunate. It was precisely those of Mead's books that Friedan liked best that have not withstood later scrutiny.

Then there is the lamentable Alfred Kinsey. Thanks to his biographer, James H. Jones, Kinsey is now known as anything but a passionless scientist pursuing the truth wherever it led. On the contrary, Kinsey's academic interest in human sexuality was stimulated by his voyeurism and sexual adventurousness. Kinsey's private life is, however, the least of the problem. Far more significant is the fact that his research methods would be considered unscientific today. Even as Kinsey was collecting his data between the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Jones reveals, professional statisticians were finding significant problems with Kinsey's sampling methods; random sampling would have been not only cheaper but also more reliable. Kinsey's backers at the Rockefeller Foundation would not listen. They were so awed by the fact that Kinsey was going to challenge conventional American pieties about sex that they could not throw money at him fast enough.

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female misrepresented the sexual habits and practices of Americans because Kinsey's interviewees were so unrepresentative. That is why Kinsey, who found many of his homosexual subjects in prisons or bars, could manage to characterize a group acknowledged for its strong influence in the arts and the universities as barely able to graduate from high school. Even at the time Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published, many critics -- among them the literary critic Lionel Trilling -- smelled something wrong with its conclusions. Friedan, a former graduate student in psychology who had taken courses with scholars known for their quantitative work, ought to have been suspicious as well, given her familiarity with research methodology. Her nonetheless easy acceptance of Kinsey's biased sampling makes one wonder about her own sampling. In the preface to her book she wrote that she was stimulated to undertake the project by a questionnaire she had administered to her Smith College classmates fifteen years after graduation, which revealed "a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform." But Friedan had relied on the same survey to paint a far more positive picture of suburban life in at least one magazine article that preceded the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Her sense that the suburbs were populated by bored housewives turning themselves into sexual vampires seems about as realistic as Kinsey's portrayal of fairly frequent sexual interaction between people and animals. The invented sexuality of Mead's Samoa became in The Feminine Mystique the invented sexuality of suburban America. One may have been pictured as happy and the other as sad. Yet neither, for better or worse, actually existed.

Bruno Bettelheim also turned out to be a very complicated case. Like Kinsey, Bettelheim led a private life radically in contrast with his public image. In The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim (1997), Richard Pollak discusses the many liberties Bettelheim took with the truth, from inventing academic credentials to qualify for his first teaching position to, allegedly, plagiarizing in his book on fairy tales. No misrepresentation was more serious than Bettelheim's self-portrayal as a patient, caring professional committed to overcoming the mental disorders or the deeply rooted psychological problems of the children he observed and treated at his Orthogenic School. In reality, as Pollak makes clear, Bettelheim was a petty tyrant whose insistence that parents were often to blame for their children's problems became an excuse for abusive behavior.

Bettelheim's authority as an expert in the psychology of extreme situations was derived from his accounts of his experiences at Dachau and Buchenwald. Were those accounts also fabricated? At the edges they certainly were. In his discussion of the camps Bettelheim was less than forthright about the bribes his family and friends paid to help obtain his release, and about the fact that neither camp was a death camp. Of course, these are quibbles; there is no doubt that what he witnessed ranks among the most brutal episodes in history.

The interpretations Bettelheim offered of his experience are, however, open to question. In particular, Bettelheim's portrayal of his fellow inmates as childlike has been challenged, especially by those who insist -- with considerable justice -- that it was the Nazis, not the Jews, who were their worst enemies. As Pollak says, this criticism of Bettelheim was fueled by the publication of Terrence Des Pres's The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976). The victims of the Holocaust, Des Pres argued, were not characters in a play by Sigmund Freud; to use them as symbols in a psychodrama ignored the fact that they were desperate people trying to survive the day. And if it was true that we ought not to find in the presumed passivity of the victims larger symbolic lessons about the human condition, it followed that we ought not to read too much significance into acts of courage. Des Pres made much of the dancer discussed by Friedan. (As Pollak points out, the story actually originated with Eugen Kogon, and was retold by Bettelheim.) In Des Pres's account the dancer was more suicidal than heroic. To uphold her actions as an exception to a general pattern of passivity was to impugn all those sent to the camps for no reason other than their Jewishness.

Again, the conclusions of The Feminine Mystique come into question if facts and interpretations that Friedan took as true are later discovered to be false or mistaken. To make her case that women required freedom, Friedan felt it necessary to exaggerate the degree to which they lived in slavery. "They are in a trap," she wrote, "and to escape they must, like the dancer, finally exercise their human freedom, and recapture their sense of self." For Friedan, as for Bettelheim, people were apparently more interesting as symbols than as flesh-and-blood individuals struggling to live in the real world. There's nothing especially wrong with that; the world needs metaphors as well as facts. But a treatment of a serious social problem which relies on the authority of experts appears far less persuasive if the experts turn out to be telling just-so stories.

THE power of The Feminine Mystique rests on two kinds of authoritative sources: the findings of experts and Friedan's testimony about her personal experience. Some of the experts, we now believe, were unreliable to a considerable degree. In the past year two biographers of Betty Friedan, Judith Hennessee and Daniel Horowitz, appear to have shown that her treatment of her personal experiences was unreliable as well.

Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique of her decision to give up her fellowship at Berkeley, suggesting that she chose the love of a young man who was jealous of her success over an academic career with its presumed loneliness. "I never could explain, hardly knew myself," Friedan wrote, "why I gave up this career. I lived in the present, working on newspapers with no particular plan. I married, had children, lived according to the feminine mystique as a suburban housewife." By presenting herself this way, Friedan suggested that she was not some academic authority writing from afar about the conditions that made women unhappy. No, she suggested, she had been as passive as any of her readers: her authority to speak had nothing to do with her graduate work in psychology; it came instead from her decision to lead a life typical of suburban middle-class women of her generation.

Both Hennessee's Betty Friedan: Her Life and Horowitz's Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: the American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism demonstrate that everything Friedan offered in this account, though technically true, was also highly misleading. According to Hennessee, she had many boyfriends at Berkeley, one of whom, David Bohm, was a graduate student in physics working with Robert Oppenheimer. (Bohm, a member of the Communist Party, was later indicted for invoking the Fifth Amendment before the House Un-American Activities Committee and soon thereafter left the United States.) But her relationship with Bohm, which was over rather quickly, had little to do with her decision to drop out of Berkeley. Horowitz suggests that Friedan's increasingly radical politics may have had something to do with it. In Friedan's year at Berkeley, 1942-1943, America was involved in the Second World War, and the grand struggle between totalitarianism and democracy in Europe made the idyllic life of Berkeley seem unexciting by comparison. Furthermore, Friedan, an activist by inclination, became bored with the highly specialized scientific discipline that psychology had become.

Passive housewives do not usually first try their hands at popular-front journalism. Friedan did. From 1943 to 1946 she worked at the Federated Press, in New York -- "the most sustained effort in American history," in Horowitz's words, "to develop a left-wing news service." From there she moved on to a six-year stint writing for UE News, the official publication of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a left-wing union. Soon married to Carl Friedman (the couple agreed to drop the m in his name, to make it sound more distinctive), Friedan moved out of Manhattan, first to Parkway Village, in Queens, and then to suburban Rockland County.

Neither of these was a typical suburb. The Queens neighborhood was a racially integrated area filled with United Nations employees, and when rents there were raised, Friedan, as the editor of the Parkway Villager, played a leading role in the rent strike that followed. The Friedan house in Grand View-on-Hudson was a large intown Victorian not far from the houses of C. Wright Mills, Harvey Swados, Herbert Gutman, William J. Goode, Charles Frankel, and Roger Angell, all of whom Friedan got to know through her community activism. During this period she wrote articles for women's magazines, worked on a television documentary, and taught classes at New York University and the New School for Social Research.

Like the suburban housewives she wrote about, Friedan was unhappy. Her marriage, according to her biographers, was unusually violent, although both stress that she gave as good as she got. But there all similarity with the passive victims of the comfortable concentration camp ends. In reality Friedan was the concentration-camp dancer, brave and resourceful. Had she portrayed herself as she really was, Friedan would have undermined the thesis of her book -- if one woman could avoid the feminine mystique, then why couldn't others? Friedan clearly knew enough psychology to understand that in America only victims can speak for victims. The personal asides in The Feminine Mystique conform to the conventions of the genre of sin and redemption: I was once like you but now I have seen the light -- and you can follow my example. It makes for great inspirational literature. But when combined with flawed academic expertise, the made-up life of Betty Friedan leaves contemporary readers uneasy about whether anything at all in her book can be trusted.

The obligations of a political activist can easily interfere with the obligations of a social critic. As an activist, one can believe that dramatic but not completely accurate depictions of the status of women are from a moral perspective no different from the strategies of those people who exaggerate the prevalence of breast cancer in order to scare women into seeing their doctors. Saving even a small number of lives justifies the latter. Helping more women to put a name to the problem that had no name justified the former.

Did Betty Friedan sacrifice the truth in order to advance her cause? In the short run the answer must be no, because The Feminine Mystique spoke truthfully enough to inspire many women both at the time and since. Yet in the longer run the faults of the book loom large. If the pursuit of a good cause is accompanied by too much bad testimony, the social critic will eventually lose the trust of the very readers she wants to influence.

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/09/mystique-betty-friedan/309205/