By the time of her death on her 85th birthday this week, Betty Friedan had witnessed almost a century of the feminist movement. She had reworked her own sense of identity, declaring that she was first an American, then a person of Jewish extraction, and then, finally, a woman. In The Second Stage , she re-examined the feminist movement; in The Fountain of Ageing , she had moved on to the politics of ageing. But if there’s one book that Friedan will be remembered for, it’s her first work, The Feminine Mystique .
In 1957, Betty Friedan was 36 years old: married with children, her years of political radicalism as a college student at Smith apparently in the past. She was working on an article for McCalls magazine on her class reunion. The question she posed her fellow Smith graduates, all educated, chiefly middle-class women, was deceptively simple: “What do you wish you had done differently?”
The answers she received set her off on an exploration of the American dream and how it had let down the women of her generation. For over fifteen years, Friedan wrote, “women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity… They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for”. So they’d landed the husband, the children, the dishwasher, the gadget-filled kitchen, the house, the second house: they had bought into the feminine mystique. They should have been happy: instead, Friedan discovered that the happy housewives who shored up those white picket fences suffered from “a problem with no name”.
The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 with an initial print run of 3,000 copies. (Just for perspective, Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking , the quintessential American cookbook, had gone through its fourth revision and sold 109,984 copies in the same year.) No one expected it to have the kind of impact it did, least of all Friedan—the article that sparked off the book was rejected by McCalls because it argued too passionately for women to take college seriously and to use their college education for more than planning meal schedules and the kids’ play dates.
But The Feminine Mystique became one of the great non-fiction classics of the 20th century, selling over 2 million copies in paperback. In today’s bookshops, it’s hard to find other feminist classics: Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics , Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , Andrea Dworkin’s raging Pornography can all be elusive. Betty Friedan’s achievement with The Feminine Mystique is shared by a handful of other feminist writers, from Simone de Beauvoir to Susan Brownmiller and Susan Faludi, Audre Lorde to Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem: they came up with insights that remain relevant to women and men in every passing generation.
The revolutionary part of Friedan’s thesis has been eroded over the years. Just as psychoanalysis once seemed an iconoclastic, strange, pathbreaking idea and has now become a commonplace of our times, Friedan’s insight that women need more in their lives than modular kitchens and loving husbands now seems commonplace, almost obvious. Even in her own time, Friedan was less than revolutionary. The Feminine Mystique addresses the concerns of white, middle-class, suburban America; if you read only that book, it would be easy to forget the fierce battles that were being fought over race and class, over workplace rights and other, starker forms of inequality.
And Friedan often came across as an anachronism, much like the desperate housewives she described. Six years after she had been hailed as a feminist pioneer, years after she had helped kickstart NOW, the author of The Feminist Mystique was still married to a man who dealt with his wife’s success by beating her up. In the relatively enlightened 1970s, Friedan exasperated many of her colleagues in the movement by alluding to the “lavender menace”—she feared that the new confidence of lesbians would alienate “normal” women.
Perhaps it’s precisely that blend of conservatism and insight that has kept The Feminist Mystique relevant. Friedan did not speak for the radical thinkers, the pioneers on the cutting edge of feminist thought, or for the poorest, most desperate victims of inequality. Instead, Friedan gave a voice to the ordinary housewife, mother and woman who found herself trapped by the roles she had so willingly assumed. There are enough of these women in every generation and in every corner of the globe to ensure that The Feminist Mystique will continue to find its audience.
(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, in February 2006: the week Friedan died.)