The Skeptical Early Reviews of Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique'

"[Friedan] demands that all women find a life purpose or career which will give them an independent identity and what she calls fulfillment. In that, she surely goes too far."

banner_friedan fem mystique AP.jpg
AP

Today, it's well known that Betty Friedan's 1963 work The Feminine Mystique was—and still is—a seminal, revolutionary piece of literature. The National Organization of Women formed in its wake; it jolted a generation of women into thinking critically about their futures and their choices, and apparently it even killed home cooking (according to some people, at least).

But none of those things happened right away. In truth, The Feminine Mystique's 50-year shelf life got off to a somewhat rocky start. While many book critics immediately recognized the potential in Friedan's book when it was released in 1963, some remained skeptical. Some detractors said it was too alarmist, others said it was too complacent—and one even complained that Friedan went too far in asserting that average girl wouldn't rather be at home putting cream on her face. That last guy probably has a few regrets.

The Feminine Mystique, in other words, didn't enter the world as the long-awaited wonder we remember it as today. To re-create the scene, I dug up a few snap judgments from critics, published just after the first edition of The Feminine Mystique arrived in 1963.


"Any single pattern for women, or anyone else for that matter, is bound to be wrong for many."
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LIVING, August 1963

Jessie Bernard reviewed Friedan's book for Marriage and Family Living (which later became the Journal of Marriage and Family, which still publishes today).

Bernard wrote that while Friedan's theory of forced femininity was scratching at something relevant, the crisis wasn't nearly as severe as Friedan made it out to be. Bernard pushed back against Friedan by asserting that it really was a woman's choice whether she pursued a domestic life or a career. Perhaps for that reason, she prescribed The Feminine Mystique as required reading for every woman about to graduate from college.

How-ever one may feel about it, this book should be on the reading list of every course on marriage and/or the family. Every college senior woman should be required to read it. It has some defects, but on the whole it offers a salutary and much needed shock to those who have, unwittingly perhaps, encouraged women to surrender their claims to identity as human beings, instead of assuring them that it is quite possible to be warmly individual human beings as well as loving wives and mothers.

[...]

Any single pattern for women, or anyone else for that matter, is bound to be wrong for many. There are some women—Terman reported 35.9 per cent of those with high school educations in 1936—who have great interest in the domestic arts; some—he found 10.1 per cent—do not. It might be as hard on those with domestic interests to have to conform to a norm of commitment to non-domestic goals as it is for the non-domestic women Mrs. Friedan is talking about conformity to the feminine mystique. We need everything that Mrs. Friedan proposes. But, in addition, we need the recognition that women are different, that some are at ease with domesticity, just as some are not. There should be channels available to women suffering from what Mrs. Friedan calls the problem that has no name, to find identity in serious non-domestic commitments; but everyone should not be forced to use them.

"Friedan tends to set up a counter-mystique; that all women must have creative interests outside the home to realize themselves."
THE AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, December 1963

Sylvia Fleis Fava, a writer for The American Sociological Review, pointed out that although Friedan's mission to expose the dismal realities of housewifedom was a noble one, she risked alienating those women who would choose to live their lives in the domestic sphere.

The author documents the psychological difficulties resulting from the feminine mystique—boredom, family problems, psychosomatic complaints, and so on, and asks whether we want this straitjacket imposed on our women. Her answer, that we should take women seriously as individuals, not as women, resounds throughout the book; I heartily agree with it. The value position makes this an important book, worthy of the wide reading and discussion it is already gaining. There is one caveat, however. Friedan tends to set up a counter-mystique; that all women must have creative interests outside the home to realize themselves. This can be just as confining and tension-producing as any other mold.

Fava also pointed out that the necessary change Friedan was calling for couldn't be put into effect solely by women who changed their own behavior, no matter how determined they were. Rather, those changes had to have support at an institutional level.

The main reservation I have about the approach taken in the book is that it is so heavily psychological. This is clearest in the last chapter, in which Friedan discusses what can be done to change the feminine mystique. She recommends changes in individual woman [sic]—less attention to home-making, more commitment to serious education and creative work. These changes in attitude would culminate in a "new life plan." This neglects the fact that the changed attitudes and plans must be acted upon in the context of the total society. The woman who develops the new life plan will find few institutionalized channels by which it can be put into effect. Negroes, too, have begun to change their attitudes and goals and to find that this is not enough without facilitating changes in social institutions. This does not deny the necessity of bringing about social change, but in the process the psychological frustration and conflicts may be as great, though of a different kind, as those experienced before the individual decided on a new life plan.

"The sicknesses that Betty Friedan describes with so much penetration and courage are the products of a diseased social organism."
INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW, Winter 1964

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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