In an afterword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, the novelist Anna Quindlen recalls seeing her mother, a housewife, sitting at the kitchen table engrossed in the book. I have no comparable memory, but I did inherit my mother’s paperback copy of Betty Friedan’s 1963 manifesto, complete with underlining and exclamation points.
The book might have been written expressly for her, an ambitious 1948 alumna of New York University who went on to do graduate work in English literature at Boston University and then at Radcliffe, where she earned top marks. By then, she was married to my father, a Harvard-trained physicist who had grown up a block away from her in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood.
When my father received a tenure offer from the University of Pennsylvania, my parents moved from Cambridge to Philadelphia, and then to the Main Line suburbs. They quickly had two daughters. And though my mother returned repeatedly to her dissertation on Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel Clarissa, she never finished it, and never embarked on the academic career for which she had once seemed destined. Instead, she buffed her floors to a high gloss, channeled her creativity into mosaics and dinner parties, and erupted periodically in angry outbursts that left the rest of the family cowering.
I first read The Feminine Mystique many years ago, probably in high school. I recalled it as pedantic and repetitive, less alluring and radical than later feminist classics by Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) and Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex). By the 1970s, in my mother’s unhappy home, the lessons Friedan taught about the mystique—which equated womanhood with housekeeping and child-rearing—must have seemed all too obvious.
As a personality, Friedan was notoriously abrasive. As a leader, she had a contentious relationship with the organized women’s movement she helped found, fighting over sexual politics and the importance of family life (which, after divorcing in 1969, she still valued). But she would continue to speak and write about economic fairness, changing gender roles and aging, among other issues, and remained an important liberal voice until her death in 2006, on her eighty-fifth birthday. I interviewed her once at a National Organization for Women conference in Philadelphia, in 1987, and I remember only her brusqueness. Or maybe it was my fear.
Returning to The Feminine Mystique again recently, in my 50s, with a deeper empathy for the trajectory of my mother’s life, I was touched by the book more profoundly. It reminded me, once again, that my mother’s failures and disappointments were not hers alone, and that new generations of women still risked entrapment by the remnants of the mystique.
These days, of course, women’s choices are both less constrained and less clear-cut. Yet they remain different from men’s. At the time of my twenty-fifth college reunion, in 2002, almost half the women in my class—which, by coincidence, included Friedan’s daughter, Emily—had stopped working full time, most likely because their husbands were making so much money. According to a class survey, the median income for male graduates working full time, as nearly all were, was an astounding $200,000.