The Most Famous Book Never Read: What makes The Feminine Mystique so special?By Diane Cole
Freud famously asked what women want. In her 1963 major bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan provided an answer that resonated throughout America: they wanted to escape the stereotyped yoke of femininity, and be freed to become full human beings.
A must-read in its era, Friedan’s book became a touchstone for a generation of middle-class women relieved to discover that they were neither alone nor crazy in their desire to find meaning, expression, and personal identity beyond the social and psychological trap Friedan called “the feminine mystique,” a life defined by hubby, 2.5 children, housework, and a well-appointed suburban home—all of which, conventional opinion insisted, should satisfy them. The book hit a cultural nerve, provoking as much controversy as agreement, generating buzz long before that word became commonplace. It not only helped jump-start the dormant women’s movement (with Friedan among its top leaders): it made the very term feminine mystique a symbol of female oppression, embodying everything women’s liberation opposed. Even now, close to five decades later, the book generates extreme reactions. In 2006, for instance, the right-wing magazine Human Events ranked it the seventh most harmful book of the last two centuries. Only the year before, a New York University–sponsored survey of the best books of journalism of the 20th century placed it at number 37 on its list of honor.
This kind of notoriety, positive and negative, suggests that the work holds a secure place on the library shelf. But how often is it taken down and actually read? Near the start of her engrossing new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, noted social historian Stephanie Coontz admits that she herself believed she’d read Friedan’s opus long ago—that is, until she actually opened a copy and realized she hadn’t. It was her mother, a housewife in Salt Lake City, who’d read it, in 1964, after Coontz had left home for college. Coontz’s mom had so filled their weekly, long-distance telephone conversations with insights garnered from Friedan that Coontz seemed to have absorbed the book by osmosis.
Flash forward to the mid-2000s, when Coontz began researching her own book about The Feminine Mystique and actually did read it. She found much of it tedious and dated, frustratingly narrow in its predominant focus on middle-class white women, and in some passages, shockingly homophobic. Then she had an “aha moment”: what had made the book important wasn’t Coontz’s response now, but what it had meant to women—like her mother—who’d read it when it was first published. That’s the story Coontz tells here, and it’s an urgent reminder that equality is an issue that does, indeed, speak to the personal as well as the political.
Here, as in her previous books, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families, Coontz does what she does best: differentiates between what we think we know about marriage and family life in previous generations and the historical reality. In this case, that means providing a fresh assessment of the impact that Friedan’s book had on women of different classes and racial backgrounds, even beyond its white, middle-class, target audience. It also means distinguishing between Friedan’s relatively tame (especially when read now) propositions for giving women the choice to work versus the radical, man- and marriage-hating diatribes that so many pundits (then and now) falsely read into and projected onto Friedan’s pages, basing their fearmongering accusations on exaggerated caricatures of the book, rather than on the book itself. (No, Friedan never told women to burn their bras or to abandon their marriages en masse, but she did encourage women “to live their own lives again according to a self-chosen purpose.” Also, she counseled that “They must begin to grow.”)
Friedan herself exaggerated when she claimed credit for single-handedly reviving the women’s movement. Although the extraordinary popularity of The Feminine Mystique certainly helped herald a revolution, it was a protest whose time had already been made ripe in the 1950s by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and by sociologists such as Mirra Komarovsky of Barnard College, who pioneered the study of gender roles and whose book Women in the Modern World anticipated Friedan’s work by 10 years. These and other influential women all argued for more-flexible gender roles. Friedan’s book, which borrowed from her higher-brow predecessors while aiming at a broader readership, provided the tipping point.
Friedan did so not just by giving voice to women who felt silenced by the prevailing ethos; she spoke in their voice. She began her now-classic account by describing the “strange stirring” of discontent—“the problem that has no name”—that lurked beneath the pasted-on happy face of domestic bliss that so many middle-class housewives felt compelled to wear. This outward image of conformity was the badge of post-World War II’s new and improved version of “normalcy”: an affluent, consumer-oriented society, in which men went to work and women stayed home with the kids. The fact that those early Baby Boom years of the 1950s and 1960s coincided with the red-baiting reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the cold war added to the societal message (and social norm) that it was distinctly “unfeminine”—if not downright unpatriotic—for a woman to yearn for something other than the American Dream of homebound domesticity.
There seemed no escaping this message, even in escapist television entertainment, with popular series like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver portraying housewives who wore pearls, dresses, and high heels to do the vacuuming, bake cakes from scratch (in immaculate kitchens), and serve milk and cookies to the kids after school. Employers assumed no sane woman would want to forgo such pleasures, and it was perfectly legal—and common—for interviewers to ask about a woman’s plans for marriage and motherhood if she did dare apply for a job. In one of the more egregious examples of the era’s attitude toward the very idea of a mother wishing to pursue a career, when one airline stewardess became pregnant, the airline generously offered her the option of resigning or, if she decided to stay on the job, putting her child in an orphanage.