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.