Betty Friedan started a revolution — and we’re still not there yet

It's been 50 years since "The Feminine Mystique" came out, and we are still feeling the pressure to "have it all"

Topics: Feminism, Betty Friedan, Gender, Motherhood, The Feminine Mystique, Obama, Wives, Mothers, daughters, Editor's Pick,

Betty Friedan started a revolution — and we're still not there yet (Credit: AP/Steven Senne/Salon)

Middle age is not generous to females. A man in his sixth decade can, like Alec Baldwin just this week did, proudly announce imminent parenthood with one’s yoga instructor spouse. He can be a George Clooney, appearing on magazine covers looking like the guy every guy wants to be. But for women, it’s different. As Tina Fey once said, “The definition of ‘crazy’ … is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” And that would generally be sometime soon after 30. But Betty Freidan’s groundbreaking “Feminine Mystique,” which turns 50 this week, is celebrating its milestone by getting a fresh shower of attention — showing both just how remarkably it’s aged and how stunningly topical it still is.

Friedan’s book was a wallop of a tome, a peek behind the placid façade of the happy homemaker and into the dark heart of a seemingly enviable segment of American womanhood. Educated women, with their nice families and pretty homes, Friedan revealed, weren’t fulfilled by staying at home and waxing their floors. They needed more. And by starting the conversation about that need, by making it OK for women to want something else, Friedan helped start a revolution.

It has been a long time since I first read “The Feminine Mystique” as a bright-eyed young “feminazi,” checking off her required list of important authors: Susan Brownmiller, Kate Millet, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Ehrenreich. Then, Friedan’s searing look at the previously unexpressed pain of American women seemed like a relic of another era. I, after all, had grown up in a world of Gloria Steinem and Mary Richards. In my lifetime, women had gained the legal right to abortion and to go to West Point. I came of age as Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf were reinventing the concept of feminism, yet again, for Generation X. I had opportunities – educationally, vocationally, sexually — that my grandmother’s generation never dreamed possible.  And yet today, years later, I come back to Friedan’s book as a working mother. I understand in a very different way the howl of frustration that she articulated so poignantly. And I think, Holy crap, this is our lives right now — and then some.



Friedan wrote the book because “no magazine would publish” it as an article. Just last week, after inviting feminist writer Kristine Holmgren to blog for them, Beliefnet told her they were “concerned about the negative connotation that our readers may associate with the word ‘feminism’” — and asked her not to use it.

Friedan famously identified “the problem that has no name” — the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment that came from the relentless pressure on women to conform to a narrow and limiting feminine ideal. Then, it was about being a traditional housewife. Now, the challenge we face is that we’re expected to somehow “have it all,” an insidious and unwinnable concept – while simultaneously being undermined on every single front.

Today, many of us have enviable careers – a fact we apologetically explain by quantifying our professional successes and making sure we repeat, over and over, that our first, best and most important job is as a mother. We wage “mommy wars” that pit stay-at-home mothers against working ones. We second-guess women for wanting to return to work after having kids but we’re disdainful of those who stay home too long. We fetishize Martha Stewart–level domestic perfection, pinning our cake-decorating inspirations on Pinterest – while simultaneously aspiring to attain the now all but required bikini-hot, post-baby MILF status. And hoo boy do we denigrate women who opt out of motherhood entirely. I don’t know about you, but there are days when I think that if all I had to do to be considered doing right by my sex was put on a crinoline, vacuum the rug and make somebody a martini, I would have it easy.

Feminism opened a million new doors, but our cultural anxiety about and animosity toward women swept right in to create new wormholes of dread just beyond them. We have gained so much, and yet we struggle mightily with all the guilt and pressure that have come with every one of those victories. Five full decades after Friedan sent out the rallying cry for us to be seen as more than just wives and mothers, our president refers to “our wives, mothers and daughters” when addressing the nation as if, when he speaks to the American people, he’s not speaking to wives, mothers and daughters. It’s been 50 years of hard-won battles and gains for women, 50 years of fighting to write for ourselves our place in American culture. So how much has changed since Friedan sent out a flare called “The Feminine Mystique”? Everything. And nothing. And our definition of what it means to be a woman didn’t get easier — it just got impossibly broader.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>