Why 'The Feminine Mystique' Is Still Worth Reading in 2013
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.
Ten years after The Feminine Mystique was published, Friedan reflected:
The book came from somewhere deep within me and all my experience came together in it: my mother's discontent, my own training in Gestalt and Freudian psychology, the fellowship I felt guilty about giving up, the stint as a reporter which taught me how to follow clues to the hidden economic underside of reality, my exodus to the suburbs and all the hours with other mothers shopping at supermarkets, taking the children swimming, coffee klatches. Even the years of writing for women's magazines when it was unquestioned gospel that women could identify with nothing beyond the home—not politics, not art, not science, not events large or small, war or peace, in the United States or the world, unless it could be approached through female experience as a wife or mother or translated into domestic detail! I could no longer write within that framework. The book I was now writing challenged the very definition of that universe—what I chose to call the feminine mystique.
Friedan didn't want her contemporaries to go to work simply for a paycheck. She wasn't even particularly concerned about women's economic security. What drove her thesis was a conviction that humans need to self-actualize and build identities beyond roles that support husbands' and children's pursuits exclusively, for those roles marched a woman steadily toward "emptiness, non-existence, nothingness." Friedan, however, did not recommend pursuing personal ambition blindly, because "a job, any job, is not the answer—in fact it can be part of the trap.... If a job is to be the way out of the trap for a woman, it must be a job that she can take seriously as part of a life plan, work in which she can grow as part of society." Her book is a manifesto for mothers to help make the world a better place—whether through work in the paid professions, part-time jobs, or volunteering in significant community organizations.
Oddly, children are nearly invisible in The Feminine Mystique. Hardly an inkling of mother-love graces the pages. Nor does the book offer solutions to practical problems emerging from women's liberation and movement back into the paid workforce.
Friedan was prescient, however, in her preface to the 20th anniversary edition. She named the next problem, which persists today:
Now that economic necessity dictates that most women must continue to work after they become mothers, . . . someone is going to have to battle in a new and serious way for institutions that will help the new family. A new economic-political basis must be found for the maternity leave, paternity leave, parental sick leave, parental sabbaticals, reduced schedules, flextime, job sharing, and child-care supports that don't now exist. But who will take up this battle, and how will it be fought, in a time when jobs themselves are so scarce that people must take what they can get, when budgets for social programs that already exist are being cut down?
Re-reading The Feminine Mystique, it exudes love for the human being, human spirit, and human potential. She wants mothers—indeed, all people—to "lean in" to life's work and not fear inevitable difficulties that arise when trying to "have it all" and juggle work and family. Overcome obstacles. Solve problems. Serve leftovers, she urges. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique 50 years ago, but today her wisdom still merits sharing.