The Most Famous Book Never Read: What Makes the Feminine Mystique so Special?

By Diane Cole

May/June 2011

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…

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