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.

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  1. Wanna hear a joke? Women’s rights.

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  2. “a capacity that, she argued, the role of full-time wife and mother could not fulfill”

    The problem is in the phrase “full-time.” By 1960, the “women’s sphere” ideal had become remarkably constrained, greatly limiting the scope of women’s activity. Dorothy Sayers points out that, during (say) the Middle Ages, the wife’s sphere of work included not only meals and washing (without labor-saving devices) but also home-based businesses such as brewing.

    When the wife’s sphere was arbitrarily restricted to dropping the kids at school, and some washing and cooking, a vast gap between woman’s potential and her actual duties was opened up. Something had to give.

    For one thing, why drop the kids off at school, when you could give the kids better education – and even more socialization – with homeschooling? I don’t know if Friedan considered that issue.

    And the artificial separation between home and remunerative work was an exaggerated response to “child labor” and “exploitation” hysteria.

    1. It’s easy to forget now that a lot of the housewives of the 50s grew up during the great depression and worked in dirty and dangerous factories during WWII.

      Maybe they liked the security and leisure of middle class housewivery after those experiences.

    2. Even today, most women don’t want to work outside the home after they have kids, or they want to work part-time at most. But feminists have never been interested in recognizing tendencies along gender lines.

      1. Plus the Catch-22 of two incomes with kids is that one of your incomes basically goes to paying other people to raise your kids. The money you bring in goes right out the door to pay for schools, childcare workers, various lessons, cleaning ladies to keep the house up, laundry service, delivery/takeout/eating out, etc.

        Plus if you look at women in the workforce, the majority of them are either doing traditional women’s work for other people’s children or they’re employed in bullshit positions like HR or in government sinecures.

  3. Remember those weekend threads that went thousands of comments? Whatever happened to those?

    1. Everyone realized how totally lame you are, so they left you. Why do people always leave you, Fist? Why do they always leave?

      1. People fear me and rightfully so.

        1. Citation?

          1. He thinks because he put ‘fist’ in his name it makes him dangerous. In actuality, it’s kind of like a little kid putting a card up to his bike wheel to make it sound like a motorcycle.

            1. Fist is in the name because it flows nicely with the rest of the name. Go ahead, say it aloud. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Also, you get a good acronym out of it.

    2. They banned your mom.

              1. I would have been more impressed if you broke it up by letter.

    3. You pine for the days when Mary would spam the thread with her various alter-egos?


  4. 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).

    Yeah, because what does raising children have to do with the future?

    It’s always puzzled me why being a corporate cog is supposed to be fulfilling, while spending your time raising your children is supposed to be a demeaning, humiliating endeavor.

    1. Patriarchy?

    2. 1800s and the movement of work from the home to a specialized place for work.

      As artisan work was replaced by mass production, you could no longer work at home with your kid; you had to go to the factory.

      Therefore we started to get the whole “professional/personal” divide thing and the building up of the professional as just as meaningful because technology just didn’t allow home work in the way it does now.

      Interesting what 3D printing might do to this. We may go back to a more artisan model.

      1. I’ve been thinking much the same things, including the impact of 3D technology.

        But even in the 1930s and 1940s, my grandmother worked a full or nearly full-time job – but it was on the same block where she lived, so her two sons were never far away. Zoning regulations played a major part in making it impossible to have a healthy balance between work and home – one reason I favor ending zoning except for clearly dangerous or noxious industries – such as munitions factories or other places that might blow up, or things that might produce an overpowering stench.

    3. Sounds straight out of Alfred Korzybski. Makes me wonder about her influences.

      And she is right to point this out because there are different behaviors a human needs to engage in to be a complete human being, and being a parent is just one of them. I would no more be content to be just a parent than Betty. It fulfills a mammalian need as a basic survival prerogative of the species, but with out satisfying intellectual wants you don’t advance the human race in ways that distinguish us from animals.

    4. It’s always puzzled me why being a corporate cog is supposed to be fulfilling, while spending your time raising your children is supposed to be a demeaning, humiliating endeavor.

      What’s always puzzled me is that if you mention said “corporate cog” without reference to feminism, the very same people will trash that lifestyle as greedy and unfulfilling.

      1. What’s always puzzled me is that if you mention said “corporate cog” without reference to feminism, the very same people will trash that lifestyle as greedy and unfulfilling.

        Well these are the same folk bemoaning the loss of small farms and manufacturing jobs after spending decades attacking those jobs as dehumanizing and unfulfilling.

  5. OT, but speaking of ‘celebrations:
    “The two-wheel trek is intended to “peacefully expose the vulnerability of cyclists, humanity and nature in the face of cars, aggression, consumerism and nonrenewable energy.””
    Not to mention the sanctimony of the participants…

  6. My wife, who never did much housework her entire life, now feels oppressed by having to do housework in between her soap operas and talking with her silly friends all day on facebook and the phone.

    Well, duh! You marry a libertarian, you’re gonna be oppressed! Sorry, I can’t share my child laborers with wifey, they are busy polishing monocles and washing my car.

    1. Yeah nothing makes me more pissed then going to my married friend’s house and seeing it look like shit. His wife is currently unemployed, which means she should be cleaning, cooking, running errands, and doing everything she can to make his life as stress free as possible.

      I am on the verge of saying something to her, but I think that would totally ruin my friend’s shot at regaining any kind of hand. But he doesn’t want to “confront” her about her pulling her own (creeping steadily upward) weight.

      1. My house looks like a picture out of one of those home magazines. The wife never lets it go, and not only that, it’s immaculate all of the time. She’s also a fantastic cook. Couldn’t have a better house wife than her, she just complains about doing it.

        The downside is that if I leave my clothes on the floor or beer bottles all over the place, she gets all sassy with me, (:

      2. But he doesn’t want to “confront” her about her pulling her own (creeping steadily upward) weight.

        He shouldn’t put up with that crap, and will probably regret it at some point in the future, but you are right, you can’t say anything, that will probably only result in him turning against you. I found this out the hard way once.

      3. One question: is the wife just recently unemployed or is this a long-term thing? Because some shit I can forgive as just a sort of post-layoff blues.

        But it sounds like a bad situation.

        1. It’s been a few months. But you know what? He’s actually really smart, and has a job with an excellent law firm. He’s working 60 hours a week, starting to climb the ladder. He’s making enough for them both.

          She should have just rolled with it, started taking care of the house. Run his errands for him, support him. Because he’s working no shit 12 hour days, you know the way big deal law firms work their rookies. But he’s picking up his own dry cleaning? He’s not coming home to a clean house? Not coming home to a meal?

          I brought this up to a female friend, and feminist bullshit starts spewing. “She doesn’t owe him anything” “She’s just as capable” “He should hire a maid.”

          Seriously, I just don’t understand the mindset where someone who’s professional commitments currently consist of one or two interviews a week somehow doesn’t have to do housework.

          1. If I were laid off and my wife was working 60 hour weeks to support us both, I sure as shit would keep the house clean and have food for her when she got home.

            This isn’t a man/woman issue, it’s an issue of both sides of a relationship pulling their own weight. If a woman thinks it’s okay for the woman not to pull her own weight in a relationship, then she’s the one claiming that women should be treated differently then men. I think women should be treated with the same rights and responsibilities of any man, and that includes doing your part for the relationship. If you aren’t working, that means keeping up the house, running errands, cooking or searching for a job.

            If you aren’t doing these things, it stops being a man/woman issue and becomes a lazy dipshit issue.

          2. “She doesn’t owe him anything”

            Does he owe her anything?

            1. Well duh, he’s an evil oppressive patriarch. He’s a lawyer. And not a socially conscious progressive lawyer, he works for businesses. He helps them make their tax burdens lighter, which is basically like stealing from the State people.

            2. Reminds me of the old (ethnic-specific) joke. A mother talks about her children: “My son married a no-good lazy woman who simply hangs around all day and does little work at all. But my daughter is better off – she married a perfect man with a great job and she gets to spend her time talking to me on the phone – it’s perfect!”

          3. I’m a housewife (except for the five to ten hours a week I do freelance work). So I get that if you aren’t bringing in the income, you should handle the bulk of the domestic. I do all the laundry, manage the kids’ homework, interact with their school, supplement their education as needed, get them to and from school, get them to and from activities, pay all the bills, balance the check book, research and make investments, do the taxes, cook most days (except weekends or days he has off), get the oil changed, drop off and pick up the drycleaning, etc. So I get that, but here is the one thing I want in exchange – the acknowledgement that the work I do at home makes his life better, richer, less stressful, and more successful than it would otherwise be. Becuase that’s the ONLY frickin’ pay housewives get. Yes, you get the room and board and clothes and all that…but it doesn’t feel LINKED withouth the acknowledgmenet, the way a paycheck does. So if any of you have a housewife, and she’s doing all that stuff, then give her the verbal acknowledgement on a daily basis. Gee, this my life easier. Wow, I’m less stressed because of this. Damn, my friends with working wives come home and then have to do all this stuff, and it’s so nice not to have to do it. Becuase that verbal acknowledgement is really the best pay housewives get, and most of them don’t get it often.

            1. Really? Because I’m a housewife and do all that (except I homeschool my kids), and all I need in return (other than his paycheck, of course) is for him to be really, really good in the sack. He is, so we’re cool. Verbalization is way overrated.

          4. In the abstract I agree with you, but I don’t think I’d butt in. In the end, either the relationship will work well enough for them both or it will end.

  7. Wasting women’s talents and relegating them to domesticity, she argued, could impede America’s economic growth as well as scientific and technological progress.


    “comfortable concentration camp.”


    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.

    The state.

    1. This would not be a problem if we reverted back to a multigenerational/extended family type of household, where the grandparents watch the children while the parents work. With so many post-college young adults moving back in with their parents and so many immigrants with traditional families settling here, we may see that in the future.

  8. “to live one’s life by purposes stretching into the future?to live as builder and designer of that world (a capacity that, she argued, the role of full-time wife and mother could not fulfill.)”

    Yeah. How could the people with the greatest power to indoctrinate the next generation possibly be the builders or designers of future worlds?

  9. Interview about women’s rights [Sue Leece, Campaigner]

    Ali G: “A lot of boys me know is trying to get their girlfriends into feminism, do you that is right?”

    Sue: “Yes, I do actually I think it’s a good thing.”

    Ali: “Do you think all girls should try feminism at least once?”

    Sue: “Well girls today often don’t realise how much they’ve benefited from feminism…”

    Ali: “But do you think it is right when they try feminism when they is drunk at a party or whatever with a few mates?”

    Sue: “What does ‘trying feminism’ mean?”

    Ali: “You know, try a bit of feminism and when they is sober the next day they get back together with their boyfriends?”

  10. Betty Friedan was alright. Not perfect, but alright.

    Wish we had more of the feminists who are interested in making the world a better place for all people, whether male or female, and fewer of the feminists who are interested in making the world a better place for themselves, and to hell with anyone (male or female) who disagrees with them.

  11. WTF, how can anyone still take this bullshit seriously? The essence of feminism is sour grapes by ugly girl against what pretty girl has, as an excuse to smuggle the state into interpersonal affairs.

    At the root of feminism, like all collectivist ideologies–including the ridiculously horrid evil of egalitarianism–is the evil-worshipping cult of nihilism. They do not want to live–they want others to die, or to live in perpetual hatred and self-doubt at the very least.

    1. Nihilists!

      1. That’s you, loser–because it’s a helluva lot easier to stare into the abyss of your belly button and worship death than it is to choose to possess the courage to be a winner on earth.

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  19. I just realized this was written in 2002. I wonder what the gun crime rate is now. Any government that tells you that you have no right to self defense is not looking after your best interest. Self defense is the most basic right anyone has. No government or police can protect you. I can’t believe you all allow this to continue. I keep a gun at home for self defense and have a license to carry it concealed any where I go. And I do. If I am attacked then at least I have a chance to stay alive. By the time the police arrive they can either arrange for my body to be picked up or take a statement from me. I choose the later. Britons let a right be taken from them and now it will be much harder to get it back. But you should try.

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