Even in publishing’s glory days when novelists appeared regularly on “The Tonight Show,” few books have not only sold more than 300 million copies, but ignited a call for social change still being heard today. Yet, that’s what happened when the “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan was published 50 years ago this month. From the opening chapter title “The Problem That Has No Name,” to the epilogue, Friedan’s provocative, searing critique of the “Feminine Mystique,” which dehumanized and oppressed women, rocked the hearts and minds of everyone – especially women who were told by their husbands, doctors, advertisers and the laws of the land that they were only housewives, whose place was in the home. Though it didn’t create the modern day women’s movement, “The Feminine Mystique” was instrumental in starting feminism’s second wave.
Friedan named a problem that was festering within the consciousness of many women. “Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite awhile, I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today,” she wrote. “… There was a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image that I came to call the feminine mystique.”
At age nine, I was too young to read “The Feminine Mystique” when it came out. But I remember one day seeing my Mom reading the book and watching her hastily put the book in a drawer before my father walked in the house. “It might upset your Dad,” she said, refusing to tell me why.
A half-century later, I wondered if “The Feminine Mystique” had passed its shelf life. After all, when it was written, women often couldn’t get credit on their own or sit on juries. Sometimes, they could be arrested for wearing pants. Like many “Mad Men” fanatics, I adore Don Draper and I’m in love with Joan. Yet, we’re so passionate for the show, in part, because it’s so retro. We’re secure, maybe even a bit smug, in our knowledge that we’re not going to go back to the world of Sterling Cooper.
When there are women rabbis, race car drivers, lawyers and Supreme Court justices, are our sisters (queer and straight) still tethered to their homes? If you choose to become a homemaker, are you still expected to greet your spouse with a drink and a roast in the oven when he or she returns from work?
Surprisingly, I found “The Feminine Mystique” to be quite relevant for today. At a time when children are sexualized at increasingly younger ages, Friedan’s assertion that women are made “to present themselves as objects to be consumed” seems all too timely. Now, when some Republicans in the U.S. House oppose the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, and Roe v. Wade is increasingly under attack, parts of “The Feminine Mystique” read as if ripped from today’s headlines.
All of us are creatures of our times; most of us are inextricably bound by the prejudices of our age; and social and political conditions change. Friedan was no exception. Though she’d written for labor newspapers, “The Feminine Mystique” is primarily addressed to white, upper and middle class women. In the book, Friedan decried the “homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene” and said that lesbians were a “lavender menace” who threatened feminism.
I don’t take any of these shortcomings and prejudices lightly. But it’s important to remember the context in which Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique.” The American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality to be a mental illness until 1973. I give Friedan props for having a change of heart in 1977. Then, Friedan endorsed lesbian rights at a women’s conference in Houston.
Whether you’re LGBT or hetero, male or female – check out “The Feminine Mystique.” It still rocks.