The Powerful, Complicated Legacy of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine
is it possible to address a “problem that has no name”? For Betty Friedan and the millions of American women who identified with her writing, addressing that issue would be not only possible, but imperative.
In the critically acclaimed 1963 The Female Mystique, Friedan tapped into the dissatisfaction of American women. The landmark bestseller, translated into at least a dozen languages with more than three million copies sold in the author’s lifetime, rebukes the widely held post-World War II belief that stipulated women would find the greatest satisfaction in the routine of domestic life, doing chores and taking care of children.
Her indelible opening sentences would resonate with generations of women. “The problem lay buried, without expression, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange shock, a feeling of dissatisfaction, a longing that women suffered in the mid-twentieth century in the United States. Friedan’s powerful treatise appealed to women who were unhappy with their supposed idyllic lives and addressed their discontent with societal ingrained sexism that limited their opportunities.
Now a classic Friedan book, she is often credited with starting the “second wave” of feminism, which generated critical interest in issues such as equality in the workplace, birth control, and abortion. , and the education of women.
The late Friedan, who died in 2006, would have celebrated her 100th birthday this month. At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, a well-read, tattered copy of The Feminine Mystique, gifted by former museum curator Patricia J. mansfield, is secured in the nation’s collections of iconic artifacts. was included in the museum’s exhibition entitled “The 1960s: American Culture” which was co-curated by Mansfield and Graphic Arts Collection Curator Joan Boudreau and ran from April 25, 2014 to September 7, 2015.
“One of the things that makes the feminine mystique resonate is that it’s a very personal story,” says the museum’s Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator in the division of political and military history. “It is not a dry job. it is not an academic paper. . . it is a very personal series of observations and feelings.”
While the female mystique spoke a bold truth to white, college-educated, middle-class women who ran the house and raised children and dealt with lack of fulfillment, she failed to acknowledge other women’s circumstances. Black and LGBTQ feminists in the movement were largely absent from the pages of the female mystique, and in her later work as a leading activist, leading members of the feminist movement would come to clash with her beliefs and her temper. she would be criticized for moderate views amidst a changing environment.
Their contributions, however, remain important. She was a co-founder and the first president of the National Women’s Organization (now), helping to create both the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now known as Naral Pro-Choice. America. But her name is more tied to The Feminine Mystique, the book that thrust her and other disgruntled housewives into the American consciousness along with the ongoing civil rights movement.
lisa tetrault, associate professor of history at carnegie mellon university, emphasizes friedan’s point that women were burdened by society’s notions of how they should live their lives. at the time, many women privately experienced, she says, “the feeling that the problem was just theirs.”
“Part of what the female mystique did was shift this conversation away from this individual analysis,” she says. Friedan’s book gave them a systemic analysis of how society was undermining women to keep them at home under the moniker “occupation: housewife.”
historian and smith college professor emeritus daniel horowitz, author of 1998 betty friedan and the making of the feminine mystique: the american left, the cold war, and modern feminism also contextualizes the book at a time when other papers were examining the concerns of suburban life.
“She, as a professional writer, was very aware of these books and the impact they had,” she says. “It’s also a wonderfully written book with appeal on all kinds of levels. it is an emotionally powerful book.”
Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born on February 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, to immigrant parents. Ella’s Russian father, Ella Harry, worked as a jeweler, and Ella’s Hungarian mother, Ella Miriam, was a journalist who left the profession to start a family. she attended smith college, a leading institution for women, as a psychology major, where she began to view social issues in a more radical light. She graduated in 1942 and began her graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. Ella Friedan would end up abandoning her pursuit of a Ph.D. after being pressured by her boyfriend, and she, too, left before moving to New York’s Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
From there he began working in labor journalism. She served as an editor at the Federated Press News Service and later joined the EU News Team, the publication of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Her activism for working-class women in unions, which included African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, is crucial, Horowitz says, to understanding the formation of her feminism.
However, she adds that her public acceptance of unions during the feminist movement did not occur until the last years of her life, and that the feminine mystique omits her early radicalism. “Her feminism of hers in the ’50s and ’60s is very consciously based on the civil rights movement,” she says. “She thinks that she is now a naacp for American women.”
Betty married Carl Friedan in 1947 and the couple had three children. The family moved from Queens to suburban New York’s Rockland County in 1956, and she took the job of a stay-at-home mom while freelancing for women’s magazines to increase the family income.
it was at a smith meeting that friedan found inspiration for what would become the feminine mystique. Intent on surveying her classmates who had worried that a college education would get in the way of starting a family, what she found was a lack of satisfaction among stay-at-home moms. Other college-educated women she interviewed shared those sentiments, and she found herself questioning her own role in life in the process.
To create the feminine mystique, Friedan included both the experiences of the women she spoke with and her own perspectives. she dedicated herself to deconstructing the myths about the happiness of women and their role in society. “Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite some time,” Friedan wrote in the book’s preface, “I realized that something is seriously wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today.
even before it was created, the book was controversial: the publisher’s president called its premise “over the top” and “provocative.” And though it received criticism from some critics (a New York Times review dismissed its premise, claiming that individuals, not culture, were to blame for its own dissatisfaction), it was a huge hit with female readers.
“it was pretty fantastic the effect it had,” friedan said later in an interview with pbs, “it was like it put into words what a lot of women had been feeling and thinking, that they were monsters and they were just ones.”
Following the success of his book, Friedan returned to New York City with his family and, in 1966, helped settle with his colleagues. she and her husband divorced in 1969, just a year before she helped lead the women’s strike for equality that drew thousands of supporters to the city’s Fifth Avenue.
lobbied the equal employment opportunity commission to end sex discrimination in workplace advertising, advocated for equal pay, and lobbied for changes to abortion laws, among others. Friedan also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed state ratification in 1982 but has since attracted renewed interest.
By the end of Friedan’s life, the movement had gone far beyond what she had been able to keep up with. she had already been criticized by some feminists for a lack of attention to the issues afflicting poor, non-white lesbian women, and she had made disparaging comments towards the latter. when conservatives made cultural gains in the 1980s, she blamed radical members for causing it, denouncing them as anti-men and anti-family.
“One of the things that should come out of the women’s movement,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “is a sense of liberating and enriching ways to work on career and family life, and various ways to raise our children and figure out how to have a home and shelter.”
friedan had become a decidedly moderate voice among feminists, but she remained active nonetheless. She has served as a visiting professor at universities such as New York University and the University of Southern California, and in 2000 she wrote her memoirs to date. her in 2006 she passed away in washington, d.c. on her 85th birthday.
Two canvases depicting Betty Friedan are in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. One in acrylic, created in 1995 by Alice Matzkin, shows the Reformer looking to the side with her hand behind her head in a contemplative pose. the other, painted in oil in 1999, was donated by artist byron dobell in 2000 and features friedan focused on the viewer with a vague sense of interest.
Looking back at Friedan’s seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, it’s important to acknowledge its limited scope. as graddy points out, she focuses on the aspirations of certain college-educated white housewives, rather than non-white, non-middle-class women, among others.
“[t]hese are women who also have free time to organize,” says graddy, “they have free time to become the women who are starting to organize different facets of feminism, who can organize now, who have connections who can do and the time they can spend.”
Kelly Elaine Navies, Oral History Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, discusses the disconnect between the feminine mystique and Black women of the day.
“It did not directly affect the African-American community, as a large percentage of African-American women worked outside the home out of necessity,” she writes in an email. “In fact, prolific African-American writer and activist Pauli Murray, who co-founded Now, along with Freidan, never even mentioned the feminine mystique in her memoir.”
The claim that the female mystique sparked the “second wave” of feminism is also dubious. The characterization of waves is not only misleading, as calls made during different movements can overlap while individual waves present competing beliefs, but as Graddy points out, activism does not simply fade away when it receives less attention. she also mentions that describing the book as the beginning of the women’s movement only makes sense when applied to a certain group of feminists.
tetrault says that the feminine mystique not only fails to discuss how cultural expectations of the idealized housewife also afflicted poor and non-white women who could not hope to meet that standard, it also fails to provide meaningful structural solutions that would help to women.
“Somehow, Betty Friedan’s solution of just getting out of the house and looking for meaningful work,” she says, “left unaddressed all of those structural issues that unleashed the work that women provide throughout life. home, and that’s a big problem.”
despite the book’s flaws, it remains an important part of history and has shaped the women’s movement. While Horowitz argues that a feminist movement would still have occurred without its publication, she says that it nonetheless impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of women.
and, as navy points out, the material it didn’t include caused black feminists to spread ideas that were more inclusive of American women in society, even forming their own term “mujerista” to distinguish it from the more exclusive “feminist.” “. .”
“In retrospect, as a catalyst for the second wave of feminism,” writes Navies, “the feminist mystique was a factor in the evolution of black feminism, in the sense that black feminists were forced to respond to the analysis that lacked and to develop their own theory and praxis that confronted issues of race, class and gender.”
tetrault adds that the message of the feminine mystique that social constructions were harming women resonated throughout feminism.
“That would be a kind of realization, spreading through the movement on all sorts of different fronts. . . that the problem was not them,” she says. “the problem was the set of cultural expectations and the cultural structures that surrounded them.”