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Think Again: Remembering the ‘Feminine Mystique’

SOURCE: AP/Gail Burton

Feminist author Betty Friedan, left, is seen with former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) at the Feminist Expo 2000 in Baltimore.

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The Center for American Progress is hosting a forum today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The forum participants include CAP President Neera Tanden, current New York Times pundit Gail Collins, former New York Times pundit Anna Quindlen, and CAP Senior Fellow Judith Warner. As the event description notes, when The Feminine Mystique was originally published in 1963, “[m]arried women in some states couldn’t sit on juries, get a job without their husband’s permission, or keep control of their property and earnings.”

One telling historical note from the same year that has always impressed me—and my students when I recount it—involved the marriage of Katharine Meyer to the journalist Philip Graham. Meyer’s father, Eugene, owned The Washington Post Company, where his daughter and his new son-in-law both worked. On the occasion of their marriage, Eugene Meyer simply handed over ownership of the family’s flagship newspaper to Mr. Graham. Mrs. Graham noted in her autobiography, titled Personal History, that, “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.”

As it happened, Mr. Graham suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, and before committing suicide, he sought to divorce his wife for a much younger woman with whom he had conducted a quite open affair around Washington. Had the divorce gone through, Mrs. Graham would likely have lost not only her family’s newspaper but also her livelihood, to say nothing of the incredible career she eventually forged after becoming publisher of the Post and president of its parent company in 1963 upon Mr. Graham’s suicide—all because her father did not think a man should have to work for his wife. Suffice it to say that after the publication of The Feminine Mystique that year, fewer and fewer people—both men and women—were thinking that way anymore.

Few works in all of American history have enjoyed a greater impact, whether measured in political, cultural, or psychological terms, than Friedan’s combination historical novel, manifesto, and cri de coeur. Born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois, in 1921, she was raised by immigrant Jewish parents. From an early age, she drifted toward journalism, starting a literary magazine that was too controversial and thus went unpublished in her high school. She then set out for Smith College—the famed New England women’s school—in 1939, where she took a class with the wife of future Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Il), Dorothy Wolff Douglas, who opened her mind to the problem of female oppression. Goldstein planned to continue her studies at the University of California, where she had won a fellowship, but she felt compelled to turn it down when her success made her then-boyfriend nervous.

As a one-time supporter of former Vice President Henry Wallace, Goldstein gravitated toward Marxism and landed a job as a left-wing labor journalist. But after getting married and becoming “Betty Friedan,” she quit her job and attempted to settle down into a life of peaceful suburban domesticity. Deeply unhappy, she got back in touch with a number of her college classmates from Smith and discovered she was not alone in her feelings of dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment. So Friedan set out to name the disease ailing her and her friends. The result was The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. It was a “spirited intervention in a particular time and place,” as the prominent historian of feminism Christine Stansell aptly noted—it was “a flag planted by an outrider on a battlefield where armies were starting to assemble.”

Friedan’s book was originally published during a four-month newspaper strike in New York City and, as a result, made its way into the world without much advertising or book reviews. The editors of both McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal were fortunately willing to step away from their usual domestic fare and offer excerpts of the book to their combined readership of 36 million. The book’s publisher, W.W. Norton, arranged for a book tour—which was unheard of then for an unknown author—and soon enough, the first paperback printing sold 1.4 million copies. Friedan immediately began receiving letters that read, “I feel, today, as though I had been filled with helium and turned loose,” and “Like light bulbs going off again and again,” and “I understood what I was feeling and felt validated!!” And a movement was born.

The book began with Friedan attempting to describe her “sense of dissatisfaction” that sprung from a question asked by a housewife: “Is this all?” The “problem that has no name,” as her first chapter was entitled, centered around this vague sense of unhappiness that Friedan had discovered in interviewing numerous women from Smith and elsewhere. “I just don’t feel alive,” one woman told her. Friedan noted the pressure on women to return to domesticity after World War II, believing it was exerted through magazines and popular culture. She made clear that the problem went beyond material concerns into a terrain of life that was more psychic and spiritual. “Our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings,” she wrote, drawing upon the teachings of the psychologist Erik Erikson, whose classes she took at the University of California

This sensible argument, though, turned sour toward the end of the book, where she rather crazily compared the life of a postwar suburban American housewife to that of an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp. She insisted that, “The women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.” Even so, she struck a chord with millions of women when she called on women to find “creative work of [their] own” outside the home, proposing a kind of female G.I. bill that would let women go back to college and get a degree so they could find work. Quoting the president of Mills College, Friedan said women “should be educated so that they can argue with their husbands.”

Although Friedan’s book suggested to some that she was calling for a revolutionary form of politics—by citing problems that were not material but more diffuse and spiritual and by invoking the legacy of the Holocaust—her actual politics were quite conventional. She was just a liberal who wanted to extend the rights that women enjoyed, just as liberal civil rights leaders wished to do for African Americans and later for LGBT individuals.

As the feminist historian Ruth Rosen notes, Friedan sturdily resisted pressure to link feminism with issues of sexual freedom, particularly free love or separatist lesbianism. She tried to steer the National Organization for Women—the organization she helped establish—in a middle-class, respectable, reform direction, making it simply a logical extension of liberalism. And in this respect, she succeeded magnificently by achieving a degree of success in her challenges of the comfortable thought and life patterns of an entire country that few authors had achieved since Thomas Paine published Common Sense in 1776.

A half-century later, we remain in her debt.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, from which the information about Friedan above is drawn and is being released in paperback this week.

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