The Feminine Mystique at 50: Pioneering, Yes. Radical, No

Remembering the egalitarian approach to women's rights.


A book both hailed and reviled for launching the modern revolution in women's roles—Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique—recently turned 50, almost exactly seven years after its author's passing. Today, Friedan's feminism still has important lessons and messages to offer, including ones that the women's movement rejects at its own peril. Whatever its flaws, her vision is one that focuses on female achievement and equal partnership between women and men, not female victimhood, male evil, and gender warfare.

Some of Friedan's conservative detractors have portrayed her as a radical hellbent on subverting America's foundations. (Revelations about Friedan's background of writing for left-wing labor publications in the 1940s and early 1950s have played into this.) But, though Friedan did have a leftist background, the startling thing about The Feminine Mystique is that its radicalism is so un-radical. Friedan sought to free women from the social norms that enshrined domesticity, but her goal was to bring them into the mainstream of American society beyond the home. Indeed, her left-wing critics cavil that, in one writer's words, Friedan's feminism is "less a challenge to male authority than an incorporation of women more fully into a male, middle-class form of authority."

The Feminine Mystique's vision of a worthy life is deeply rooted in traditional Western and American values. She celebrated the "unique human capacity . . . to live one's life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world" (a capacity that, she argued, the role of full-time wife and mother could not fulfill with its repetitive domestic tasks and its focus on emotional life rather than action). She urged women to join men in "the battle with the world."

Imagine how heretical these passages would sound in a women's studies class today. "Battle with the world"? A violent, militaristic, male metaphor. Unique human capacity to be a builder and designer of the world? Unbridled, earth-raping, species-centric patriarchal arrogance.

Friedan also unabashedly appealed to American patriotism in her plea for equality. Wasting women's talents and relegating them to domesticity, she argued, could impede America's economic growth as well as scientific and technological progress.

The Feminine Mystique was not without its excesses. Infamously, Friedan compared the housewife's loss of independent personhood to that of concentration-camp inmates and branded the suburban home a "comfortable concentration camp." Arguably, she also underestimated the fulfillment and the outlet for creative energies that women can find in traditional roles (though, notably, she recognized unpaid work as a worthy endeavor as long as it was a serious engagement with the world outside the family).

Friedan has also been criticized for exaggerating the stranglehold of gender-role conformity on the culture of her time. Historian Daniel Horowitz, author of the 1999 book Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, notes that by 1963, female discontent with traditional roles was already being widely discussed—often in the same women's magazines Friedan indicted for promoting domestic bliss as the height of feminine fulfillment. But in a way, this underscores the relevance of Friedan's ideas: The Feminine Mystique picked up and amplified already existing winds of change, and its message resonated with millions despite its rhetorical excesses.

It is also worth noting that none of these excesses were directed at men. Friedan never pitted men against women as enemies or victimizers; indeed, she warned that women's "wasted energy" could turn into destructive psychological aggression not only toward their children but toward their husbands as well. A woman denied her own ambitions and forced to seek status and identity through her husband, she wrote, would often treat the man as an "object of contempt" if he failed to meet her expectations. If anything, her sympathy was with the browbeaten husbands; she also suggested that men might live longer if women shared more of the burden of being the world's "doers."

In the years after the book's publication, Friedan—a co-founder of the National Organization for Women—fought to keep the women's movement from sliding into a gender-based version of "obsolete ideologies of class warfare." She was appalled by activists who attacked marriage and motherhood, and deplored the radical feminist obsession with pornography and rape. Initially, she was also hostile to lesbian rights; her railings against "the lavender menace" earned her accusations of homophobia (particularly in conjunction with a passage in The Feminine Mystique that blamed the rise in male homosexuality on frustrated housewives smothering their sons). Friedan clearly shared some of her era's casual prejudices, from which she later distanced herself. But her anti-lesbian polemics must also be seen in the context of the 1970s' advocacy of lesbian separatism as an anti-male revolt.

The biggest flaw of The Feminine Mystique was Friedan's scant attention to the question of who would keep the home and raise the children when both women and men were out in the world doing things. She seemed to assume that the problem could be easily resolved with better time management and day care; yet it turned out to be far more complex. Friedan made up for this omission in the final 25 years of her life, starting with the 1981 book The Second Stage, in which she championed the work-family balance as the central feminist issue and urged more flexible roles for men as well as women.

Friedan didn't necessarily have the right answers—she was, for instance, a strong advocate of institutional, government-subsidized day care—but she raised the right questions, both in the 1960s and in the 1980s. While highly critical of Freud's views on women, she shared his belief that love and work are the two basic elements of a full life, and passionately believed that women's lives, like men's, should include both. In that, she was right—just as she was right that feminism has no future if it pits women against men. Perhaps, after all the battles between the gender warriors and the traditionalists still pining for the old "feminine mystique," Friedan's vision of true equality is the one that will endure. 

This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.