A Woman Ahead of Her Time: Betty Friedan's Groundbreaking 'Mystique'

A Woman Ahead of Her Time: Betty Friedan's Groundbreaking 'Mystique'
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A Woman Ahead of Her Time: Betty Friedan's Groundbreaking 'Mystique'
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Today is the anniversary of a book publishing event that was truly transformative: On Feb. 19, 1963, W.W. Norton published “The Feminine Mystique” by a then-unknown New York housewife named Betty Friedan.

It would sell millions of copies, be translated into many languages, help launch the National Organization for Women -- with Friedan as the first president -- while thrusting the author into the heart of a national conversation Americans are still having, especially during election season.

Betty Friedan opened her famous book by identifying “the problem that has no name.” She was writing, as New York Times film and literary critic Janet Maslin would say, about “depression, frustration, emptiness, guilt and dishonesty . . . analyzing the way psychiatrists, women’s magazines, marketers, educators and social scientists routinely lied to women about their need for feminine glamour.”

In naming the problem with no name, Friedan proved herself not only an astute social critic, but a natural-born marketing genius and an evocative narrator.

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women,” she wrote in her opening pages. “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- ‘Is this all?’”

What if an American girl aspired, for instance, to be an astronomer? Weren’t all these new products that save time from the drudgery of housework -- from automatic dishwashers to instant cake mix -- conducive to just such dreams? Well, Friedman ran that idea by a (male) motivational expert who struggled to comprehend what kind of advertisements Friedan had in mind. He finally threw out this concept: “The astronomer gets her man!”

Friedan’s analysis had some shortcomings, which became clearer in the fullness of time. Her analysis was elitist, for starters, and racially myopic. One-third of American women were already in the workforce when her book was published, and most them were not employed in the glamorous jobs coveted by upper-middle-class white women. More worrying to 21st century progressives, her book was overtly homophobic in places, proving that Friedan, like almost all of us, was a product of her times.

Her viewpoint was also informed by now-discredited social science, particularly the work of Alfred Kinsley and Bruno Bettelheim. The Bettelheim influence is most jarring, especially when Friedan compares being a housewife to life in a concentration camp. She’s also been criticized for not giving sufficient credit to Simone de Beauvoir, whose 1949 feminist treatise, “The Second Sex,” was so provocative the Vatican put it on a list of prohibited books.

Finally, and most troubling, Betty Friedan wasn’t really who she said she was, meaning that she wasn’t a bored housewife. She was an intellectual and activist who had labored for many years after college in the vineyards of left-wing and labor union journalism.

None of which is to say she was inventing a problem. Sexism existed in the old left, too, and she was asked to leave a job working for a union newspaper when she became pregnant with her second child. The idea for “The Feminine Mystique” occurred to her in 1957 -- at her Smith College 15th class reunion -- when she encountered so many unfulfilled classmates.

What she overstating things? Not hardly, as evidenced by the graduation ceremonies at Smith just two years earlier. The speaker was once and future Democratic Party presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. The title of his talk was “A Purpose for Modern Woman.”

“I think there is much you can do about our crisis in the humble role of housewife,” Stevenson began. “This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, has great advantages. In the first place, it is home -- you can do it in the living room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand. If you’re really clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television!”

Although this seems appalling, gender profiling hasn’t completely gone away. Elizabeth Warren, of all people, demonstrated this truism only yesterday. Addressing the Culinary Workers Union local in Las Vegas, Warren proclaimed the White House “a mess,” adding, “And when you’ve got a mess and you really need it cleaned up, you call a woman and get the job done!”

Okay, whatever. But long ago, Betty Friedan had the perfect comeback to such stereotypes. “No woman,” she said, “gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.”  

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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