Betty Friedan, 1921-2006

Betty Friedan, 1921-2006

Betty Friedan lived a big life and wrote a big book that helped change our world, in every way, for the better.


Betty Friedan is dead at 85–a brilliant, pugnacious woman who lived a big life and wrote a big book, a book that helped change our world, in every way for the better. The far-right magazine Human Events knew what it was doing when it put The Feminine Mystique on its list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. It might not have been as profound as The Second Sex or as radical as the stream of articles and pamphlets that a few years later would pour from the mimeograph machines of the women’s liberation movement. But for millions of American women it was as profound and as radical as it needed to be.

If you ever doubt how thoroughly dead the 1950s are, try teaching The Feminine Mystique to young women, as I did six years ago. You might as well be teaching Jane Austen. The way you’d have to explain about curates and Bath and entailed estates, you have to tell them how women dressed up to go to the market, how women’s magazines obsessed about the fragile male ego and how dropping out of college to get married was indulgently viewed because you weren’t going to use your education anyway. The vast American obliviousness that shrouds in a kind of Gothic mist everything that happened before last Tuesday has swallowed up the system of laws, social practices and cultural understandings Friedan described. My students felt a bit exasperated by Friedan’s suburban wives, their low-level depression and seething dissatisfactions, their “problem that had no name.” If they were so unhappy, why didn’t they, you know, do something about it? None of my students planned to spend their days waxing the kitchen floor; even their mothers hadn’t done that. But if they did, it would be–the magic word–their choice.

Well, maybe. Or maybe what looked like choice would be a new incarnation of the mystique in a hot new downtown outfit, wheeling a designer stroller. Or maybe the mystique is gone but the structural obstacles it obscured are still there: job discrimination, the old boys’ network, workaholic job cultures, lack of childcare. After all, naming a problem is not the same as solving it. The Women’s Strike for Equality, which Friedan helped organize in 1970, called for twenty-four-hour childcare centers, abortion on demand and equal opportunity in education and employment. Not one of those thirty-six-year-old demands has been fulfilled.

In a spirited, much discussed polemic in the December American Prospect, retired law professor Linda Hirshman argues that it’s not a media myth that educated young women are going back home in droves; it’s really happening, and it’s feminists’ fault for replacing the language of justice with the language of choice: Whatever you decide is fine, if that’s what you really want! For Hirshman work is everything: She counts as slackers even new mothers who take a few years off or go part-time. And work means a high-paying career with a corner office in your sights: none of your poverty-wage, idealistic, do-good jobs for her, so eat your hearts out, Nation staffers. Hirshman wants feminists to assert that stay-home mothers waste their talents, buy into domestic subordination and perpetuate inequality in the public realm. Even if she’s right in some abstract, theoretical way, and even if there were some central committee of feminism to issue these fatwas, it would be hard to think of a better recipe for political suicide: As if American women don’t already feel attacked by the cartoon feminist in their heads!

In Salon‘s roundup of tributes, Hirshman claims Friedan as her muse. But what strikes me about The Feminine Mystique is the absence of one-size-fits-all pronouncements. In her political battles, Friedan may have been rigid and dogmatic–young feminists were “man-haters,” lesbians were “the lavender menace.” Her 1980 follow-up, The Second Stage, is marred by her obsessive hostility to the movement she helped create. But in her first book she spoke in a different voice: Rarely has a writer addressed readers more empathetically and more intimately. She doesn’t say, Well, if you think you need to be home with your children, that just shows what a failure you are. Or, By washing your husband’s shirts you perpetuate the subordination of women, you traitor. She says, If you feel there’s more to life, you’re right. You’re not the problem, society is.

The Feminine Mystique didn’t change my life; I was only 13 when it came out and even then I didn’t see myself as a Future Homemaker of America. The book I loved was Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, which was about literature. Still, whenever I open Friedan’s manifesto I’m carried away by its directness and pungency, its moral seriousness, its Emersonian call to women to use their best energies and be true to their best selves. It is so contrary to the caricature of feminism put forward in the media down to this day–child-hating feminazis in power suits–and it is not really Hirshman’s feminism either. Friedan doesn’t disparage love or motherhood (in fact, for women’s liberationists, she was far too devoted to conventional domestic arrangements); she doesn’t insist you get up from the delivery table and go straight back to your desk; she doesn’t, like Hirshman, belittle majoring in English or art history as a ticket to nowhere. Still less did Friedan–whose major experience of full-time employment was as editor of the left-wing United Electrical Workers union newspaper–advise women to drop their foolish predilection for socially meaningful work and go for that big corporate paycheck. I doubt she would say, with Hirshman, that domesticity is inherently “not interesting” even if she thought it. She would simply say it is not enough for a whole human life. Cooking and cleaning and shopping are not why we are here.

The Feminine Mystique has a larger and deeper vision: Women, like men, have a duty to their minds and talents and selves that cannot be fulfilled by living vicariously through husbands and children. An equal cannot live a happy subordinate life; an adult cannot thrive in a culture that infantilizes her. If Rousseau had not been a mad misogynist, he would have applauded Friedan.

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