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

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"[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."

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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

Evelyn Reed of the International Socialist Review took Fava's concerns about The Feminine Mystique a step further. Like Fava, she believed Friedan had missed the point: There were bigger, darker forces at work that made it so the "problem with no name" couldn't just be smoothed over by applying Friedan's tired prescriptions of education and awareness.

But according to Reed, the problem with no name was a side effect of capitalism.

Betty Friedan's diagnosis of the disease is superior to her remedy for it. She suggests that more serious education and study, together with interesting, well-paying jobs, will open the door of the trap. This is the same kind of limited, individual solution that the feminists formerly proposed—and that subsequently proved so ineffective. Some fortunate women can do what the author has done—turn around, make a "new life plan" and escape the domestic cage. But the life-plans for the great majority of women are determined for them by forces outside their personal control—the ruling powers.

The sicknesses that Betty Friedan describes with so much penetration and courage are the products of a diseased social organism, in which the rights, welfare and opportunities of human beings are subjected to the dictates of the profiteers. During a capitalist war women can be taken out of their homes by the millions and put to work in the factories. But when they are no longer needed as producers, they are sent back home to become primarily consumers. In both instances, what is decisive is not the needs of women as human beings but the interests of the monopolists. These masters of America shape the lives and livelihoods of womanhood and the whole family according to their own corrupt and corrupting aims.

"What is to stop a woman who is interested in national and international affairs from reading magazines that deal with those subjects?"
THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 7, 1963

Lucy Freeman of The New York Times, on the other hand, thought Friedan focused too much on the culture and not enough on the individual. Who, exactly, she asked, was stopping a woman from pursuing an interest in real-world affairs?

Sweeping generalities, in which this book necessarily abounds, may hold a certain amount of truth but often obscure the deeper issues. It is superficial to blame the "culture" and its handmaidens, the women's magazines, as she does. What is to stop a woman who is interested in national and international affairs from reading magazines that deal with those subjects? To paraphrase a famous line, "The fault, dear Mrs. Friedan, is not in our culture, but in ourselves."

"The average girl will continue to stay home and cream her face as long as society sanctions it."
SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE, September 1963

This review by one Lee Metcalf of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune—who, as far as I know, is not that Lee Metcalf—basically takes the cake when it comes to 50-years-later poignancy. Emphasis is my own:

It is obviously true that during the last 15 years many millions of intelligent girls, many of them well educated, have deliberately turned their backs on the world and gone fanatically female, devoting themselves to large broods of children and elaborate housekeeping and refusing to think of anything else. It is also true that more and more girls are marrying so young they never grow up. And it is pretty obvious that a great many of them are rather unhappy, particularly after their children go to school. It is also beginning to be recognized among the child psychiatrists that all the round-the-clock attention they have been lavishing on their children is producing rather dubious results.

But Mrs. Friedan, crusading against "the femine [sic] mystique", does not simply ask for freedom for those women who want to work or to use their capabilities outside their homes. She goes further and 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. How many women—and, for that matter, how many men—find that kind of career or purpose? Rather than be a file clerk, the average girl will continue to stay home and cream her face as long as society sanctions it, just as surely as many a man would surely rather putz around the house than work on the assembly line if society would let him!

Half a century later, the "average girl" now puts her face cream on before the commute to work: At the time of the 2010 U.S. Census, 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 were participants in the labor force.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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