The Feminist Makeover

Saying goodbye to old-style feminists


This article first appeared on the newly launched Slate women's site, Double X, as part of a group of answers to the following prompt: "In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan argued that American women suffered from a malaise she called "the problem that had no name." Her critique of domestic ennui helped launch the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s, leading to many of the advances women now take for granted. But not everything has changed. So we asked women to answer this question: If you had to pinpoint today's problem that had no name, what would it be?" Read the other responses here.

In 2006, at 25, I left a position as a researcher at the New York Times. As my boss and I boarded the elevator for my goodbye lunch, a successful middle-aged newspaperwoman joined us. When small talk revealed that we were headed to a meal in my honor, she politely inquired if it was Secretary's Day. Mortified, I rushed to explain that I was no secretary, but a Working Journalist, and we were heading to lunch because I was leaving the Times to follow my then-boyfriend (now-husband) to Boston, where he'd be starting business school in the fall. What would I be doing in Boston? she asked. I told her the truth: I didn't have a job lined up yet. She shook her head, the corners of her mouth curling downward, and snapped that the next relocation had better be for my career. Then she stepped briskly off the elevator.

Here was a woman who had fought the good fight, broken glass ceilings, made tough calls about work-life balance, and made a great success of herself. Yet somehow, when she looked at me, she didn't see a happy beneficiary of her labors, a young woman free to make professional and romantic choices in a far better world than when she herself had started out. She saw, first, a secretary, and second, an ungrateful wretch. I think she honestly believed that she was speaking a hard truth to me, one I might not hear anywhere else.

I was born in 1980. The ideas in The Feminine Mystique were conventional wisdom before I was a twinkle in my mother's contraceptive compact. We've had a revolution, a backlash, a rinse, and a repeat since Friedan wrote her zeitgeist-altering book. The choking, claustrophobic silence about the compromises women make, which Friedan documents so movingly, is long since eradicated. In fact, women pretty much won't shut up about this stuff.

Friedan's "problem with no name" now has more names than Eskimos have for snow, each one capturing a slightly different aspect of a single phenomenon. There hasn't been such a frenzy of naming since Genesis 2:20 (perhaps not coincidentally, the same passage where woman-as-helpmeet makes her debut). We endlessly discuss how to have it all, plus personal fulfillment, work-life balance, helicopter parenting, not knowing how she does it, freezing eggs, opting out, and yummy mummys. We will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

So if we're living in a post-post-Friedan utopia, why aren't women happier? Well, women make a lot of bad choices. But you know who else makes terrible choices? Men. Virtually all of my late-20s male friends are currently having career and/or life crises. They're depressed. They feel out-of-joint, disconnected from the life they wish they were leading in ways that are difficult to express, just like Friedan's housewives. Their crises aren't the same as my women friends'—men don't fret about the health of their gonads, for instance. But the New York Times 1963 review of The Feminine Mystique gets this about right for both sexes: "To paraphrase a famous line, 'The fault, dear Mrs. Friedan, is not in our culture, but in ourselves.'"

The same woman at the Times who snagged me in the elevator that day had done the same thing on an earlier occasion, to ask about a semi-spurious trend story published in the paper that day. It described Yale students and recent graduates (I'm one) who were planning to "opt out" for a year or two or five when they spawned. She was aghast to hear that I didn't have strong feelings either way, and warned me against dropping out of the workforce. God help my shallow self, as I stood there looking at her rumpled suit and dated hair and frown lines, I was overwhelmed with pity. Perhaps watching me breeze into the life she had so laboriously carved out for herself—or worse, stray from the hard line in a way that she and other feminists couldn't allow themselves to—felt to her like a bitter betrayal.

But it felt great to me.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.