Unreal Choices: On The Feminine Mystique

Unreal Choices: On The Feminine Mystique

Unreal Choices: On The Feminine Mystique

For Betty Friedan, feminism was humanism: a question of growth, maturation and identity.


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.

The American media never seem to weary of publishing articles and books on why women can’t “have it all,” a yardstick almost never applied to men. A recent provocateur was foreign policy expert and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who complained in an Atlantic cover story about the excessive demands of high-level government service. But it was hard to summon up much sympathy: after quitting the State Department, Slaughter still enjoyed not just a thriving academic career but an accommodating husband, two sons and enough time to complain about this embarrassment of riches. Her article, with its cover image of a toddler in a briefcase, became a social media sensation, and now she has a book contract too.

However dubious Slaughter’s example, and however tired the phrase, “work-life balance” remains an obsessive and sometimes elusive goal for women, and increasingly for men as well. Many of my married or otherwise partnered women friends seem to be marooned in uncomfortable polarities. Some are at home, having given up paid work, wondering what, if anything, comes next. They talk of vague boredom or restlessness, subclinical variants of Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” Others, having been freed by feminism to claim their professional competence, are twenty-first-century superwomen. Anticipating the ballyhooed advice of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, they have already “leaned in,” and then some. While still shouldering the bulk of the housework and childcare (which the sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously dubbed “the second shift”), they find themselves supporting under- or unemployed men hampered by the economy, outdated skills, or a lack of focus or ambition.

Hanna Rosin highlighted this phenomenon in her recent book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, which also began as an Atlantic cover story. Don Peck’s Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It, yet another Atlantic offshoot, explored how hard times are affecting blue-collar workers and family dynamics. But the full story of this latest gender upheaval still awaits its definitive chronicler, its own Friedan.

* * *

What is remarkable about The Feminine Mystique is that it can seem, alternately, so antique and so fresh, a reminder of what has changed and what has not. For a progressive-minded reader, it contains its share of embarrassments, notably its disparagement of homosexuality and its suggestion that mothers sidelined by the mystique helped cause it.

Friedan, who attended graduate school in psychology (like my mother, she never finished), pays abundant homage to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, culminating in the “self-actualization” that so many women of her era renounced. But the book, with all its talk of smothering mothers and “arrested development,” remains overly indebted to the Freudian mindset and vocabulary it critiques.

On the other hand, Friedan’s analysis of American consumer culture, the media that buttress it, and the perils of women’s retreat to the home still convinces and still matters. The book, as I had remembered, has its longueurs and its repetitions. But they form a carapace that can scarcely contain the underlying emotions. This was, in the end, a cri de coeur of anguish and rage at what seemed to be Friedan’s own dead-end fate. It was a work of self-analysis through which she gained her own freedom from the feminine mystique.

The book owes its origins to an alumnae survey Friedan conducted in the late 1950s of her Smith College class of 1942, a group of women who entered the single-sex college with relatively high expectations. Most had since married and had children, and few worked outside the home. In interviews, Friedan discovered evidence of “the problem that has no name,” which manifested itself in discontent, depression and physical illness. She would ultimately define that problem as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities.” (Her focus, as critics have noted, was on middle-class women who could afford to renounce paid work, not the millions in mostly menial jobs outside the home.) Feminism, for Friedan, was fundamentally humanism, seen through a psychological lens: a question of growth, maturation and identity.

Friedan herself had been fired from a newspaper job for becoming pregnant with her second child. She had three children in all, and while raising them, worked as a freelance writer for women’s magazines. It was a part-time gig she compared to secret, solitary morning drinking—a deviation from the norm inconspicuous enough to escape notice. In the 1950s, she reports, most magazines for women were edited by men, and they increasingly disdained both serious, idea-based journalism and fictional depictions of strong career women in favor of endless articles on housewifery and childcare. Friedan was savvy enough to produce what the market wanted, but became “strangely bored with writing articles about breast feeding and the like.”

Nevertheless, as she detailed in the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition (one of the extras included in this new volume), she naturally turned to women’s magazines as an outlet for her Smith survey findings. McCall’s commissioned an article, but a male publisher “turned the piece down in horror, despite underground efforts of female editors,” Friedan writes. Ladies’ Home Journal assigned the story, but Friedan eventually withdrew it, “because they rewrote it to say just the opposite of what, in fact, I was trying to say.” After doing yet more interviews, she tried again with Redbook. But the magazine told Friedan’s agent that “only the most neurotic housewife could identify” with her client’s findings. It was out of desperation then, as a last resort, that Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, a five-year project that consumed her life and then altered it irrevocably.

* * *

“The book,” Friedan writes, “came from somewhere deep within me and all my experience came together in it: my mother’s discontent, my own training in Gestalt and Freudian psychology, the fellowship I felt guilty about giving up, the stint as a reporter which taught me how to follow clues to the hidden economic underside of reality, my exodus to the suburbs and all the hours with other mothers shopping at supermarkets, taking the children swimming, coffee klatches. Even the years of writing for women’s magazines.”

Today, we take many of The Feminine Mystique’s conclusions for granted. But it is striking to observe just how carefully and methodically Friedan builds her case. She begins, powerfully, with this justly celebrated paragraph, which sounds like it was written for posterity:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”

Friedan focused on two successive generations of women. Those in their 40s and 50s—including, at the margins, Friedan’s own graduating class—felt the pain of having given up their dreams of a career in favor of domesticity. By contrast, younger women, raised in the heyday of the mystique, had been inculcated “from earliest girlhood” with the notion that their only permissible dream was to marry and have children.

In the evolving cultural imagination, career women were associated with the stigmatized notion of spinsterhood. Familial bliss and intellectually fulfilling paid work were deemed mutually exclusive. The results of this conditioning—so universal then, so alien to us now—were statistically measurable: in the falling average age of marriage for women (20 and sinking), the rising number of children per household and the growing tendency for women to drop out of college, abandoning an education that seemed to serve mainly to enhance their dinner-party conversation.

By 1960, as Friedan was writing, the anomie afflicting these housebound women was starting to be reported by mainstream media, but in dismissive, defensive tones. “From the beginning of time, the female cycle has defined and confined woman’s role. As Freud was credited with saying: ‘Anatomy is destiny,’” Newsweek opined. Why, the magazine asked, could all these economically privileged American women not accept these restrictions “with good grace?”

Such pleas for women to desist and defer only buttressed Friedan’s assault. Paving the way for what would become feminist consciousness-raising, she wrote, somewhat awkwardly, that the constraints on the American woman were, first and foremost, “chains in her own mind and spirit…chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices.” In her attack on the “happy housewife heroine” portrayed by women’s magazines, Friedan shoulders some blame. “I helped create this image,” she confesses, but she knows better now—realizes, she writes sardonically, that “a baked potato is not as big as the world.” She recapitulates the history of the first wave of the women’s movement, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in a chapter titled “The Passionate Journey.” Striding through this chapter is Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879), a symbol of confinement and eventual liberation. In densely argued passages that reveal her academic training and inclinations, Friedan issues a series of indictments: of culture-bound Freudian psychology and its contemporary popularizers; of functionalist social scientists, including Margaret Mead, who confound the descriptive with the normative; and of what she calls “sex-directed educators” who, among other failings, have diluted college with courses like “Marriage and the Family.”

And yet, as Friedan writes, “A mystique does not compel its own acceptance.” The aftermath of war, loneliness and fear helped convince the American woman to embrace her “mistaken choice,” sending her “back home again to live by sex alone, trading in her individuality for security.” The words are incendiary, serving as prelude to one of Friedan’s most powerful arguments: that women are “a target and a victim of the sexual sell.”

It is this sexual sell that “powers it all”—that, Friedan argues, helped transform the energy of the earlier feminist movement into the lethargy of the mystique. Friedan is no conspiracy theorist, she avers, but she writes: “Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives.” (In her 2006 preface to the fifteenth anniversary edition of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi advances a similar argument, complaining that “the feminist ethic of economic independence has become the golden apple of buying power.”) At this crucial point, Friedan turns investigative reporter and visits a professional marketer, who allows her to read his research and analysis. It reflects, she says, “a shrewd cheerful awareness of the empty, purposeless, uncreative, even sexually joyless lives that most American housewives lead.” The American woman needed to be told that household devices and products would save her time without rendering her superfluous, that they would instead enhance her creativity or demonstrate her technical expertise and mastery. It was a delicate marketing dance. In the end, in yet another enduring phrase (a recasting of “Parkinson’s Law”), Friedan would declare that “housewifery expands to fill the time available.”

Friedan’s rhetoric grows apocalyptic at times, overheated, fueled by fury. The household of the 1950s was, for her, a “comfortable concentration camp,” in which women sought a destructive symbiosis with their husbands and children, victimizing them in the process. The mystique left devastation in its wake. What could change this grim picture? Only a new “life plan,” with each woman finding “creative work of her own,” Friedan concludes.

* * *

The Feminine Mystique and the reinvigorated women’s movement of the early 1970s shook my household, as they did so many others. In a letter to a friend, my father complained mildly that my mother had “discovered Women’s Lib” and was now asking him to share cooking duties. He wasn’t alone: my sister and I were corralled into regular housecleaning chores.

While we labored, my mother, more restless than ever, returned to her dissertation and spent many hours working at a nearby college library. But without a community of teachers and classmates, she felt isolated. Self-doubt and her native perfectionism overwhelmed her. Blaming her dissertation adviser for his lack of support, she put the project aside.

Nevertheless, in her 60s, she finally was able to secure a teaching job. She spent a semester, maybe two, as an adjunct at a local private university—she proudly saved every pay stub—and then a few years teaching night classes at a noncredit extension school for adults. She put as much time and effort into preparing those courses—on subjects like “Fiction Into Film” and “Japanese Culture”—as the most diligent college professor. When her teaching ended, she avidly resumed her own studies, auditing college courses in German, Greek, art history and a dozen other subjects.

During my mother’s final illness, she often boasted to her nurses that both her daughters had attended Harvard, a mark of her success as a mother. She was taking stock, imagining a life well lived. But she also trekked to the attic to unearth her old graduate school papers, which she had kept for almost six decades. After my mother died, my sister and I faced the melancholy task of emptying the house, the prison that she had grown to love and refused to leave. In a dressing-room closet redolent of mothballs and filled with thrift-store clothing, I discovered an old leather satchel. It contained hundreds of handwritten and typed pages, every note and draft of her unfinished dissertation.

In 2006, Katha Pollitt, wrote an obituary for the recently deceased Betty Friedan.

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