Does "The Feminine Mystique" still matter?

The latest reissue of Betty Friedan's classic triggers an age-old debate about its place in the canon

Published February 13, 2013 2:00PM (EST)

Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of Books 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 WorldTheir 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?

By Andi Zeisler

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