Betty Friedan, a firebrand 50 years ago, remains one today with the reissue of her landmark creation “The Feminine Mystique” in a new, golden-anniversary edition.
Yes, this is the book that begins with the now-immortal words:
“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the mind of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. 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 ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’ ”
How well I remember that long-ago moment. I was a year out of graduate school – and bent, for reasons I didn’t exactly fathom, on never becoming my suburban mother – when Betty Friedan, God bless her, stepped out of the shadows to explain it all not only to me and but to countless others.
She wasn’t the first woman to do so, but she sparked the revolution and, although she herself has been gone since 2006, it will always be her torch I see, lighting the way. Thus I come favorably to Norton’s new edition of Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
It is not as handsome as the book deserves to be, and it cries out, as an anniversary edition, for at least a photograph or two. But it has a very fine introduction by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, and a wonderful, apparently reprinted, afterword by novelist Anna Quindlen as well as Friedan’s own 1973 and 1997 thoughts on the book and its aftermath.
“If there‘s a list of the most important books of the twentieth century, 'The Feminine Mystique’ is on it,” Collins writes. “It also made one conservative magazine’s exclusive roundup of the ‘ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries,’ which if not flattering is at least a testimony to the wallop it packed.”
Beloved or berated, “The Feminine Mystique” gave a name to what Friedan called “the problem that has no name” – and suggested that, initially, suburban housewives find some part-time fulfillment outside the home, with an eye to equality and parity with men.
Yet, “remarkably,” Collins notes, “Friedan managed to write a whole book indicting American society for its attitudes toward women without discussing its laws.
In 1963, most women weren’t able to get credit without a male cosigner. In some states they couldn’t sit on juries; in others, their husbands had control of their property but also of their earnings …”
That Friedan also ignored minority, gay and poor women in her book left her open to attack from all sides – but, as Collins says sagely, “in a strange way, all those deficits are the book’s strength. ‘The Feminine Mystique' is a very specific cry of rage about the way intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life and regarded as little more than a set of reproductive organs in heels.”
And, if Friedan didn’t deal per se with laws that compromised women, she did a phenomenal amount of research for the book that launched a million feminists. There are statistics, interviews, sources and copious footnotes, all there to be read in historic perspective, all spelled out under such chapter headings as “The Happy Housewife Heroine,” “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud,” “The Forfeited Self” and more. There is also, for women’s studies scholars, a complete index.
Collins, rightly, points out that Friedan’s 1963 book, although a stunner, “did not create the women’s rights movement” and that commissions on the status of women “were started by the Kennedy administration before [the book] was published …”
Friedan herself, in a preface to the 1963 phenomenon, acknowledged seeds planted earlier by a Mellon study of Vassar women, which she found “provocative,” as well as “Simone de Beauvoir’s insights into French women, the work of Mirra Komarovsky, A.H. Maslow, Alva Myrdal…”
But it was Friedan’s cry that was heard loudest – and clearest – across America. And it is her own words after the fact – in both her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition and in a piece titled “Metamorphosis: Two Generations Later” – that Friedan shines anew. Both appear in this welcome anniversary edition of “The Feminine Mystique,” Friedan recalling needing “a name for whatever it was that kept [American women] from using our rights, that made us feel guilty about anything we did that was not as our husbands’ wives, our children’s mothers, but as ourselves.”
In the book, Friedan referred to this phenomenon as a “schizophrenic split” – “a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform (the image of the modern American woman as she was written about in women’s magazines).”
Ten years and countless societal changes later, Friedan clearly felt vindicated: “This was not just abstract and conceptual,” she wrote. “It meant that I and every other woman I knew had been living a lie, and all the doctors who treated us, and the experts who studied us were perpetuating that lie, and our homes and schools and churches and politics and professions were built around that lie.”
Strong words from a strong woman – who went on to co-found, to name and to serve as the first president of the National Organization for Women, a group so named so that it could include men.
“I never did see [the women’s movement] in terms of class or race: women, as an oppressed class, fighting to overthrow or take power away from men as a class, the oppressors,” Friedan wrote. “I knew the movement had to include men as equal members.”
(Of course, the fight Friedan began is far from over – but she helped women in America to take those first, crucial midcentury giant steps.)
She always knew “giving a name to the problem wasn’t enough … Society had to change.” And change it did.
In fact, the sheer depth and breadth of change for women in the years since the initial publication of “The Feminine Mystique” is testimony in good part to Friedan.
She not only shouted “Foul!” into the perfect storm that was 1963 – but she also used her words to paint a new dawn for the men as well as the women of America.
The Feminine Mystique: 50 Years
By Betty Friedan
562 pages, $25.95
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.