4 Big Problems With 'The Feminine Mystique'

Several "grains of salt" deserve consideration in any discussion of the 50-year-old book's legacy.

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Feminist theorist bell hooks took Betty Friedan's book to task for its racial exclusion. (bell hooks)

Betty Friedan is my favorite feminist. When I read Friedan's seminal 1963 work The Feminine Mystique at age 16, it changed my life—for the first time, I understood that feminism could be practical, could be noble, and had radically changed the world I lived in for the better.

So, like many Friedan fans, I would love to spend this 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique just binge-reading my way through all the reverent commemoration—breezing in blissful denial over every retrospective's obligatory "caveat" paragraph designed to remind readers that, well, yes, it did (supposedly) have its flaws.

But the truth is that in the years since its publication, other theorists and scholars, feminist and otherwise, have presented grave complications to the legacy of The Feminine Mystique, with regard to its scope, its inspirations, and its messages to women—complications that deserve much more than one quick, painless paragraph's worth of consideration.

Like any beloved, much-studied text, secular or sacred, The Feminine Mystique deserves to be read critically in order to be understood fully. So, lest we get too rosy remembering the achievements of The Feminine Mystique, let's review in further detail some of those bubble-bursting, parade-raining criticisms. According to the aforementioned thinkers and philosophers, Betty Friedan's 1963 book is a courageous text with a noble goal, but...


It's racist. And it's classist.

In 1984, black feminist theorist bell hooks introduced her own book, From Margin to Center, with a searing indictment of The Feminine Mystique: Though Friedan's book had spawned what came to be known as the second-wave feminist movement, it focused on what wasn't a universal female problem but rather a problem endured only by white, upper- and middle-class mothers and wives. According to hooks, Friedan had written myopically, as though women of other races and classes—those who, she argued, were most victimized by sexist oppression—simply didn't exist.

hooks was by no means the first to have a problem with Friedan's white-girl-problems worldview. But her delivery of this particular criticism ranks among the most withering. (Emphasis is my own, throughout.)

Friedan's famous phrase, "the problem that has no name," often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women—housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.'" That "more" she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.

... When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, more than one-third of all women were in the work force. Although many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique.

... From her early writing, it appears that Friedan never wondered whether or not the plight of college-educated white housewives was an adequate reference point by which to gauge the impact of sexism or sexist oppression on the lives of women in American society. Nor did she move beyond her own life experience to acquire an expanded perspective on the lives of women in the United States. I say this not to discredit her work. It remains a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women. Examined from a different perspective, it can also be seen as a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence, which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter titled "Progressive Dehumanization," makes a comparison between the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

It's founded on a lie.

Daniel Horowitz further complicated the book's legacy with his 1998 book Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique. In it, he exposed a startling, weirdly little-known truth about its author: She wasn't who she said she was.

In 1963 and the years afterward, Friedan had claimed that she "came to political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife," and in so doing, she promoted The Feminine Mystique by marketing its authenticity. But Betty Friedan was not a simple housewife driven to action by her own feelings of domestic captivity. Rather, she was a seasoned radical with years of experience in leftist politics.

Friedan's version of her life, which historians and journalists readily accepted, hid from view the connection between her union activity of the 1940s and early 1950s and the feminism she articulated in the 1960s. Her story made it possible for white suburban women readers to identify with its author and thereby enhanced the book's appeal.

Horowitz's book revealed that Friedan, then known as Betty Goldstein, had become involved with radical leftist activism during her years at Smith College from 1938 to 1942. At Smith, she was editor of a college campus paper that argued for non-intervention in WWII and unionization of the maids on campus.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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