The latest reissue of Betty Friedan's classic triggers an age-old debate about its place in the canon
THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE is the Tupac Shakur of literary feminism, reincarnated at least once every decade with new insights that engender old beefs while at the same time serving as a reminder of why it’s a classic. Indeed, the book’s legacy often takes the form of whatever the written equivalent of an earworm is, its ideas setting up lifelong camp in (largely female) brains absent any real effort or study. Several years ago, Stephanie Coontz began writing a history of how The Feminine Mystique had impacted a generation of women; the result, 2011’s A Strange Stirring, found that many who had believed they’d read the book realized that, in fact, they hadn’t: they had simply absorbed it by osmosis. Similarly, those holding vehemently antifeminist beliefs considered the book an unforgivably radical text, full of screeds against everything from marital rape to — you guessed it — the tyranny of brassieres. Writes Coontz, “When they tried to explain the gap between what they ‘remembered’ and what I told them the book actually said, they usually decided that the title had conjured up such a vivid image in their minds that over time they had come to believe they had read it.”
With the 50th-anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, it’s time for a new round of both griping and celebrating. In the introduction, Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Remarkable Journey of Women from the 1960s to the Present, notes that its primacy as the mother of all feminist texts stands on contested ground. Critics, she argues,
are right to be a bit flummoxed that although Friedan was writing during the civil rights movement, she barely mentions African American women. Working-class women make their appearance mainly in a few suggestions that married women who want to work might want to hire a housekeeper or a nanny. And, remarkably, Friedan managed to write a whole book indicting American society for its attitudes toward women without discussing its laws.
The case against The Feminine Mystique, of course, includes many more charges. There’s the fact that Friedan presents her thesis as a truth bomb of her own original building, giving no credit to earlier texts that grappled with women’s existential despair about their role in society — notably Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (published in 1949) and sociologist Mirra Komarovsky’s Women in the Modern World: Their Education and Their Dilemmas (1953). There’s the specter of Friedan’s well-known homophobia: Her belief that homosexuality was “spreading like a murky smog over the American scene” had far-reaching consequences after she founded the National Organization for Women and denounced lesbian inclusion in the movement for women’s equality as a “lavender menace.” There’s the problem that some of the key material undergirding her arguments — Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Alfred Kinsey’s work on human sexual behavior — has since been revealed to have itself been faulty, as Alan Wolfe noted in a 1999 Atlantic article. The fact that she was also a pain in the ass — feminists far and wide have recalled Friedan’s abrasive personality, and in her 2000 autobiography, Life So Far, she copped to being “a bad-tempered bitch” — is probably the least of her offenses; Tina Fey might well have had Friedan as well as Hillary Clinton in mind when she declared that “bitches get shit done.”
But even if all that can be pushed aside for a moment, the question of why the book demands reprint upon reprint remains. In a time when intersectional feminism is both vital and increasingly prioritized by the colleges and universities that are often the first point of contact for burgeoning feminists, why should we continue to care about Friedan’s rarefied world of Seven Sisters graduates frittering away their intellect in suburban split-levels? In an economic climate where only a handful of women grow up expecting to be housewives, and where people of all sexes are finding that covering their nut generally trumps abstract notions of career fulfillment, does The Problem With No Name really need more renaming?
The answer is both no and yes, a fact which has much less to do with The Feminine Mystique itself than it does with how feminism as a movement has aged since 1963. While scholars, media makers, and a vast and ever-growing blogosphere speak a language of feminism that encompasses a range of subjects (Sex workers’ rights! Transgender identity! Atheism! Gender-neutral pronouns!), in the larger world the very idea of feminism still struggles for legitimacy. As sophisticated as the philosophy has become among self-identified feminists, to most of the world it’s still seen either as something that happened in the 1970s — you know, with marches and flaming undergarments — or as an annoying distraction from “real issues” like war and the economy. Though Coontz argued in A Strange Stirring that the women’s movement would have happened whether The Feminine Mystique had existed or not, it’s entirely possible that the book, written today, would be unlikely to find a home at a major house like W.W. Norton. And it almost certainly would not have the impact it did in 1963, when it was excerpted in McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal and sold 1.4 million copies in its first printing.
So those for whom The Feminine Mystique is a reminder of how feminism has been — and, in may ways, continues to be — white and middle-class, can rightly give the stink-eye to this new edition, which only serves to further entrench such features. And folks disinclined to entertain feminist theory as valid to begin with certainly aren’t going to care. But there’s a third group of people who might well be served by the book: those who approach it as an historical document, only to be stunned by how relevant parts of it still are. Though the book is best known for its diagnosis of the creeping malaise born of trading a life of the mind for a life of minding the house, what stands out most in retrospect is how expertly Friedan predicted that consumerism would come to stand in for liberation.
Entire industries — self-help books, fashion magazines, fitness chains, infomercials — are built on assumptions about how women are, what women want, what men want in a woman. Billions of dollars change hands each year because people accept gender essentialism as something to which we put up our dukes on principle, but eventually capitulate. Friedan’s — and, before her, de Beauvoir’s and Komorovsky’s — existential quandaries about what it means to be a woman in a world defined by men have increasingly been answered by capitalism. As prescient as she was in chapters like “The Sexual Sell,” there’s no way Friedan could have predicted how the likes of vajazzling and labiaplasty would come to be treated like fur coats or electric mixers — as desirable facsimiles of women’s autonomy and fulfillment. But her takeaway from meetings with an advertising executive remains instructive: “Properly manipulated (‘if you are not afraid of that word,’ he said), American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack — by the buying of things.” Swap “housewives” for any current demographic, and consider the success of, say, Eat Pray Love, or the high-end handbag market, or whatever that nutty eyelash-growing serum is. In a supposedly postfeminist world, many of today’s women are happy to own these choices, and believe that manipulation has nothing to do with it; The Feminine Mystique insists on placing the very idea of choice in its truer, if more sinister, context.
Like Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s 2011 documentary about the systemic undervaluing and stereotyping of women in media and pop culture, this new edition of The Feminine Mystique won’t tell the seasoned scholar or blogger anything s/he doesn’t already know. But maybe those aren’t the people it’s meant to reach. As Anna Quindlen writes in the new edition’s afterword, the book “set off a social and political explosion” when it was first published, “yet it also speaks to the incomplete rebuilding of the leveled landscape.” Feminism requires more than just its insiders to create a strong bedrock. A world in which there’s no singular canon is a noble goal — but what if the irony is that this classic helps us get there?
More Related Stories
- My text blew up in my face
- Boy Scouts end ban on openly gay boys
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Billionaire hedge funder: Babies, breast-feeding "kill" focus, keep women from succeeding
- "Bookless library" set to open in Texas
- Man arrested for sending Craigslist sex party to neighbor's house
- Greek yogurt, toxic waste hazard?
- Glenn Beck: CNN interview with atheist tornado survivor was a setup!
- Incoming BBC news director on journalism gender gap: "We can do better"
- Illegal construction, shoddy materials at fault in Bangladesh factory disaster
- Pope Francis: Atheists are all right!
- Lawsuit alleges anti-gay hiring practices at ExxonMobil
- Boy Scouts poised to vote, still greatly divided on gay youth
- Is recreational pot use safe?
- How I ended up in a pyramid scheme
- My bipolar partner beat me
- Teenagers care more about online privacy than you think
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- El Salvador court delays ruling on abortion case while woman's life hangs in the balance
- Kicked out of the mall -- for an anti-cancer hat
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Salon is proud to feature content from The Los Angeles Review of Books, a multimedia literary and cultural arts magazine that uses the evolving technologies of the Web to reinvent the great American tradition of serious book reviewing. LARB is a community of writers, critics, journalists, artists, filmmakers, and scholars
dedicated to promoting and disseminating the best that is thought and written, with an enduring commitment to the intellectual rigor, the incisiveness, and the power of the written word.