Yes, parts of it feel dated after 50 years. But it's important to understand what Betty Friedan's book really meant—because at its core are lessons we're still learning today.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's book that raised the consciousness of millions who read it and shared it in a 1960s kind of way: by placing it into the hands of another woman, thereby sparking a second wave of the women's movement for equality. The book names the dissatisfaction 1950s housewives felt with their mundane lives of homemaking and caring for children; Friedan called this "the problem that has no name" because, to the casual observer, no problem existed. Yet when Friedan began digging, she unearthed evidence of an unhealthy homemaker role foisted upon females by magazine writers, education and medical experts, and commercial interests.
Today, reading this classic feels like sitting down for a long talk with your wise, feminist grandmother to learn her generation's ideas on how to compose a life that's meaningful and fruitful. But revisiting the book to understand what Friedan was saying—what exactly she meant by a "feminine mystique"—reveals a logical and passionate argument that's still relevant today: All people, including women with children, deserve to pursue work that helps fulfill their human potential. When she reflected on the book and its impact years later, Friedan even prophesied the conversation sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." She understood the conflict parents experience when they love both their work and children.
When I was a college sophomore, I gave The Feminine Mystique to my mother. I loved it; she hated it. For young, educated women in the late 1970s, it hollered,"Follow your passions and build a dream career and life—go for it all and live a full, adult, self-actualized existence!" But it saddened my mom: On one hand, it invalidated her work as a stay-at-home mother and wife, while on the other, it named her discontent:
Each suburban wife struggled with it alone as she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night. She was afraid to even ask of herself the silent question: "Is this all?"
Friedan did not mince words. She argued that femininity defined solely in terms of love, children, and home is "dangerous." She did not pretend to think that the choice to stay home to be a full-time parent was equivalent in worldly impact to working as a labor lawyer, pediatric physician, or business manager. She argued that women who worked in factories during World War II were pulled home at war's end by a wide range of forces, including subtle workplace discrimination (wage and promotion bias) and companies' commercial preference for having their chief consumers—women—occupied as housewives. Friedan hammers home her primary argument that the tug homeward originated in a mystique that paints a painful choice between "love, home, and children" and "other goals and purposes in life." The price women pay for choosing the latter: loneliness. That so many people bought into the mystique shortly after war's end produces Friedan's combination of fiery, patriotic anger and disappointment:
Women went home again just as men shrugged off the bomb, forgot the concentration camps, condoned corruption, and fell into helpless conformity; just as the thinkers avoided the complex larger problems of the postwar world. It was easier, safer to think about love and sex than about communism, McCarthy, and the uncontrolled bomb. It was easier to look for Freudian sexual roots in man's behavior, his ideas, and his wars than to look critically at his society and act constructively to right its wrongs. There was a kind of personal retreat, even on the part of the most far-sighted, the most spirited; we lowered our eyes from the horizon, and steadily contemplated our own navels.
And that is the crux of it. What bothered Friedan wasn't simply the choice some women made to exit the paid workforce to care for children at home. It was the idea of opting out of the larger struggles facing humankind following the conclusion of World War II and its atrocities of genocide, atom bombs, and millions of lost lives. Friedan knew women could change more than diapers: they could change the world, if only they would resist the force that had no name.