How Betty Friedan “pulled the trigger on history” and awakened women to the freedom to question what it means to live a full life.
In 1957, turning the corner on her own 15th college reunion, reconstructionist Betty Friedan set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and general life-satisfaction. Wading through the responses, she noticed an odd, discernible undercurrent — a kind of quiet but intense unhappiness described by women in the golden age of the housewife, which Friedan termed “the problem that has no name.” Fifty years ago today, she gave shape to the problem with the landmark publication of The Feminine Mystique (public library) — a centerpiece of modern gender politics, which sparked the second wave of the feminist movement, taught generations how to be a woman, and went on to become one of the most important and influential social critiques in contemporary history. In an age when women were reduced to a fertile uterus armed with lipstick and an oven mit, it championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life. Though many of Friedan’s ideas may appear tired and painfully familiar today, that’s precisely the point: Like every cornerstone of social science, the true feat of The Feminine Mystique was identifying, articulating, and speaking up against the problem long before the problem had permeated the awareness of our collective conscience.
Today, some dismiss the spirit of feminism as a thing of the past, a social crutch we’ve outgrown and left behind — after all, in the decades since Friedan’s landmark manifesto, the world has seen its first female president, first woman in space, first female Secretary of State, and first woman to win an Academy Award as best director. And yet, even half a century later, we still witness gobsmacking gender generalizations, gaping gender gaps in education, egregiously unequal media coverage and profiling, and enduring bias in the scientific academy. The problem, it seems, has long been named — but it is yet to be solved.
In her excellent exploration of Friedan’s legacy, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (public library), historian Stephanie Coontz puts things in no uncertain terms:
The Feminine Mystique has been credited — or blamed — for destroying, single-handedly and almost overnight, the 1950s consensus that women’s place was in the home. Friedan’s book ‘pulled the trigger on history,’ in the words of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler.
Coontz sets out to tell the story of the women directly impacted by the iconic book through the countless, fervent letters they sent Friedan, seeking to understand why these women, despite the comforts and privileges of their material circumstances, felt “so anxious about their femininity and so guilty about their aspirations.” Coontz frames the necessity for such an approach, contextualizing Friedan’s work:
Many books have been written and movies made about ‘the greatest generation.’ But the subjects of these stories are almost invariably men — the army, navy, and air force men of WWII (only 2 percent of the military in that era were female); the ‘Mad Men’ of Madison Avenue who pioneered America’s mass consumer culture in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy; the ordinary husbands and fathers who created a middle-class life for their families after the privations of the Depression and the war.
What do we know about these men’s wives and daughters? As their husbands and fathers moved into a new era, many women felt suspended between the constraints of the old sphere of female existence and the promise of a future whose outline they could barely make out. They were, as one of the women I interviewed told me, ‘a generation of intelligent women, sidelined from the world.’ Some were content to provide love and comfort when the men came home. But others felt that something was missing from their lives, though they could seldom put their finger on it.
These women — mostly white, mostly middle class — were at the eye of a hurricane. They knew that powerful new forces were gathering all around them, but they felt strangely, uneasily becalmed. …
To modern generations, these women’s lives seem as outmoded as the white gloves and pert hats they wore when they left the shelter of their homes. Yet even today, their experiences and anxieties shape the choices modern women debate and the way feminism has been defined by both its supporters and its opponents.
Friedan told these women that their inability to imagine a fuller, more complete life was the product of a repressive postwar campaign to wipe out the memory of past feminist activism and to drive women back into the home. As a historian, I knew her argument ignored the challenges to the feminine mystique that already existed in the 1950s. But as I interviewed women for this book and read more about the cultural climate of the era, I came to believe that Friedan was correct in suggesting that there was something especially disorienting — ‘something paralyzing,’ as one of the women I interviewed put it — about the situation confronting women at the dawn of the 1960s. Freudian pronouncements about the natural dependence and passivity of females and the ‘sickness’ of women who are attracted to careers maybe have coexisted with sympathetic assurances that women were in fact capable and deserve equality. But such assurances only made it harder for women to figure out whether anyone besides themselves was to blame for their feelings of inadequacy.
Friedan captured a paradox that many women struggle with today. The elimination of the most blatant denials of one’s rights can be very disorienting if you don’ have the ability to exercise one right without giving up another.
Still, Princeton professor and former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter observed in brushing up against a “rude epiphany” that feminists might have sold young women an impossible ideal and much has to change if we are, indeed, to have equal opportunity in every aspect of life. In Slaughter’s own brave and eloquent words:
A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great’).
The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions — those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).
But, ultimately, at the heart of Friedan’s message with The Feminine Mystique lies a tireless insistence on the freedom to find one’s purpose and do meaningful work as the bedrock of what it means to be human:
The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.