You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Quiet Desperation

NO BOOK IS AS closely associated with the rise of second-wave feminism as The Feminine Mystique, but many feminists regard it with deep ambivalence. It is often criticized for ignoring women who were not white and middle-class, for being blatantly homophobic, and for failing to offer political solutions to the problems that it diagnoses. Nor has the book’s reputation been helped by the divisive role that Betty Friedan later played in the feminist movement, where she feuded with colleagues, attacked her more radical sisters, and tried to marginalize lesbians. Her later works were disappointing, particularly her backpedaling tome The Second Stage, which appeared in 1981. In it, she castigated women who had exchanged female powerlessness for the “excessive rigidities of masculine careerism,” and urged them to embrace a softer “Beta” leadership style. “Of all the declarations of apostasy, The Second Stage had the potential to be the most damaging to the feminist cause,” wrote a bitterly disappointed Susan Faludi.

Even Stephanie Coontz, who has now written a sort of biography of Friedan’s book, isn’t much of a fan. She admits that after agreeing to write about The Feminine Mystique at an editor’s suggestion, she realized that she had never actually read it. After finishing a few chapters, she reports, “I began to find much of it boring and dated,” adding that her “initial reaction became more negative” the more she learned about Friedan’s history.

And so despite the The Feminine Mystique’s iconic status, it remains seriously underrated. This is too bad, because there is actually much in Friedan’s book that is bracing, incisive, and disturbingly relevant. As a person, Friedan might deserve all the criticism directed at her, but as an intellectual, she is still getting a bad rap.

A Strange Stirring is not by any means a takedown. Coontz recounts the catalytic effect that The Feminine Mystique had on a great many women. Her book is full of stories of desperate, suffering people who realized they weren’t crazy only when they picked up Friedan’s bestseller, which circulated among some suburban wives like samizdat. Coontz tells of one woman who spent eight fruitless months in therapy before a friend sent her The Feminine Mystique. As Coontz reports, she was indignant when she realized her misery stemmed from social rather than psychological causes, and sent her shrink a copy of the book along with a note telling him to “read it before he ever again told a woman that all she needed was to come to terms with her ‘feminine nature.’”

“Lifting so many women out of such deep self-doubt and despair was a tremendous accomplishment,” Coontz writes. Still, to Coontz, the book is valuable mainly for its self-help efficacy rather than its intellectual contribution, which she tends to slight. As Coontz points out, if modern readers are disappointed in The Feminine Mystique, it may be because it is not the book they expect. It is not really a feminist call to arms. It does not attack institutionalized sexism, much less the institution of marriage. Instead it is a wide-ranging cultural critique of the forces that commanded a generation of post-war American women to seek fulfillment entirely in their homes and families, and an explanation of their resulting anguish and ennui. “It is urgent to understand,” Friedan wrote, “how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women.”

In many ways, the world that Friedan described is impossibly distant (though it is visible on Mad Men), and at least partly because of her own path-breaking work. She wrote at a time when women, no matter how educated, were wholly subject to their husbands. As Coontz remarks, by 1941 nearly 90 percent of the country’s school districts refused to hire married women. Spousal rape was not a crime—it wasn’t even a concept. “Until 1981,” Coontz adds, “Pennsylvania still had a law against a husband beating his wife after 10 p.m. or on Sunday, implying that the rest of the time she was fair game.”

But Friedan’s book was not really about women’s longstanding oppression. It was about a specific backlash to the gains of an earlier era. Conservatives like to paint the 1950s as the last golden age of tradition before the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, but the decade was actually aberrant. In the aftermath of World War II, the average age for marriage plunged, birthrates rose, and a powerful social stigma grew up around female ambition. “In 1920, women had earned 20 percent of all PhDs,” writes Coontz. “That dropped to a low of 9 percent from 1950 to 1955, and had recovered to only 11 percent by 1963.”

Some of the era’s passionate embrace of domesticity was due to the end of World War II, but a decade after the war was over the fierce cultural and ideological pressure for women to forswear careers remained. This was not unique to the period: feminist gains have historically been followed by backlashes. In the late 1920s, Coontz writes, one “especially popular ploy in agitating against further progress was to publish testimonies of purported former feminists, or daughters of feminists, about the costs of ‘too much’ liberation.” (It still is—Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice, has made a career of it).

Coontz is right to point out that Friedan exaggerated the feminism of earlier eras in order to highlight the reactionary tenor of her own. But Coontz understates the extent to which Friedan identified dynamics that continue to thwart women’s progress. Friedan deserves a lot of credit for recognizing the soft coercion that, in the 1950s and today, pushed women out of public life even as it celebrated their self-actualizing, liberated embrace of traditional roles. They had won their rights, authoritative voices proclaimed—so now they could freely choose a “home career.” Women, then as now, were encouraged to find themselves in the kitchen, to bake their own artisan bread, to express their essential uniqueness in their home furnishings. Her description of the shackling anxiety that pop psychologists created around parenthood, and its effects on women’s other ambitions, is as true today as it was half a century ago. “Parenthood, and especially motherhood, under the Freudian spotlight, had to become a full-time job and career if not a religious cult,” Friedan wrote. “One false step could mean disaster.”

Coontz criticizes Friedan for not owning up to her debts to the Swedish feminist Alva Myrdal, or to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, whose influence pervades The Feminine Mystique. But this ignores Friedan’s extraordinary talent for taking complex scholarly and philosophical ideas and rendering them accessible to women unlikely to ever pick up a book by a French existentialist. Both de Beauvoir and Friedan made the case that women, no less than men, have a powerful need to exercise their intelligence and abilities in the world, to test the limits of their own potential, but they did it in very different idioms.

In one of the epic sentences in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir wrote that “It is man’s luck—in adulthood as in childhood—to be made to take the most arduous roads but the surest ones; woman’s misfortune is that she is surrounded by nearly irresistible temptations; everything incites her to take the easy way out: instead of being encouraged to fight on her own account, she is told that she can let herself get by and she will reach enchanted paradises; when she realizes she was fooled by a mirage, it is too late; she has been worn out in this adventure.” Friedan made a similar case in much plainer language, in a way that immediately resonated with women who were suffering existential crises even if they’d never heard of existentialism. “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,” she wrote. “There is no other way.” The Feminine Mystique is very smart, examining the use and misuses of Freudian psychology, anthropology, advertising, and a host of other disciplines, but it is written in a comfortably middlebrow, lucid style. That’s not an easy trick to pull off.

Coontz, like other critics, faults Friedan for focusing too much on the plight of white middle-class women. Had Friedan paid more attention to African American women, who had long combined work, family, and community involvement, Coontz observes, she “could have used their example to show that women need not feel guilty for engaging in work or community activism outside the home, even if they had the financial means to be full-time homemakers, and that working mothers could maintain strong family ties, inspiring both love and respect in their children.” But this is an anachronistic suggestion. A writer in 1963 would not have gotten very far challenging mainstream sexism by holding up African-American women as a model for everyone else, no matter how inspiring their independence.

Friedan was an imperfect genius. She was trapped by some of the limitations of her time even as she transcended others. Her homophobia is embarrassing, even if not uncommon for her generation. But The Feminine Mystique is not just an artifact of a benighted era. It still contains important lessons about one of the most important questions of all, which is how to create a meaningful, autonomous life. True, that is a question for the privileged, those who don’t have to scramble for survival. But we do not usually fault male intellectuals for taking such matters seriously.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. She is working on a book about the actress, adventuress, and pioneering yoga exponent Indra Devi, to be published by Knopf in 2012.