The making of the Mystique

February 28, 2013

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the impact of Betty Friedan's famous book 50 years later.

FIFTY YEARS after its publication, The Feminine Mystique has been credited with everything from single-handedly sparking the women's movement to perpetuating an outdated and long-gone stereotype of the American family.

Neither is true, but many of the issues that Betty Friedan's book raised--such as the role of women and the nuclear family--make The Feminine Mystique worth looking back at today.

Published in 1963, Friedan's book shone a spotlight on a hidden corner of American society--the dissatisfaction and depression of the suburban housewife. Friedan tore apart the image of the happy homemaker who lived for nothing more than satisfying her husband and children.

The book flew in the face of the advertising images of the day, depicting women with starched aprons and happy smiles, hovering over a grateful family in a kitchen filled with gleaming household gadgets. Friedan gave expression to the many women who had been told they should find satisfaction in the perfect suburban home, but who were asking, "Is this all?"

Marching during the Women's Strike for Equality in 1970
Marching during the Women's Strike for Equality in 1970

While its conclusions weren't radical--for instance, her advice that women should pursue interests outside the home in order to be better wives and mothers--Friedan's book was immediately the target of criticism from a right-wing political establishment that wanted women to see that their "place" was in the home.

And while it didn't single-handedly spark the women's movement, the book was one of the first popular expressions--its first paperback edition sold 1.4 million copies--of a wider radicalization and rejection of women's second-class status in society at large.

TO UNDERSTAND the impact and importance of The Feminine Mystique, we have to start with the status of women in American society in the 1960s, before the women's rights movement. For example:

A husband could rape his wife, and face no legal retribution. South Dakota became the first state to make marital rape a crime, but not until 1975.

Law enforcement treated domestic abuse cases no more seriously than rape. In some cities, police had to actually see the assault take place for it to be considered a crime. In others, there was a "stitch" rule, with a woman's injuries having to reach a certain number of stitches before her husband could be arrested.

Women in many occupations couldn't have a family and expect to keep their jobs. When one airline found out that an employee had kept her child a secret for three years, she was offered the choice of resigning or putting her child up for adoption.

Not until 1965 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that married women could not be denied birth control. Access to the pill fundamentally changed women's lives, giving them the freedom to be sexually active and decide whether to have children or not--but protests still had to be waged to make sure there was access and contraception use was safe.

Lack of reproductive rights was even starker for women of color--African American regularly faced the horror of forced sterilization.

In this context, Friedan's book was a shot across the bow against the daily outrages of being a woman in U.S. society. Things that many women experienced as individuals were now beginning to be seen as a collective experience.

However, Friedan's choice to focus her book solely on conditions for white, middle-class women meant she missed an opportunity to relate to the everyday struggles that the majority of working-class women, particularly Black women, experienced at home and at work.

Friedan's focus on suburban housewives was an odd choice, considering her background on the left, in the civil rights movement and the labor movement, and as a writer for pro-union publications. Clearly, this omission of working-class women and their families wasn't a mistake, but a conscious decision not to take up these questions.

In the end, The Feminine Mystique misses the boat--among the solutions posed in the end of the book, for example, is the suggestion of hiring someone to help with the housework. Pretty cold comfort to the women workers who were paid--very little, and with few legal rights, I should add--to do domestic labor.

This left Friedan's book with little to say to the majority of working-class women who tackle the double burden of paid labor in the workplace and unpaid labor at home. However, this isn't to say that working-class women were unaffected by some of the messages of the book--most of all, Friedan's descriptions of the effects of the labor women perform in the isolation of the home.

For her informative book A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, historian Stephanie Coontz studied polls and surveys to get an idea of the impact of Friedan's book on working-class and African American women.

Coontz notes that most working-class women didn't confront the same choices laid out for more affluent women in The Feminine Mystique, because many of them already worked outside the home, out of economic necessity, typically in jobs that couldn't be considered "fulfilling" by Friedan's definition.

Coontz cites a letter Friedan received from a reader who wrote, "Most working women don't have careers. We have jobs, just like men." But, she explained, as long as their husbands refused to help around the house, she'd be willing to "chuck the wage-earning back in our husbands' lap." Describing a dawn-to-midnight day of work inside and outside the home, she writes, "This isn't our idea of fulfillment."

This, however, doesn't mean working-class women didn't want to work outside the home, away from the isolation of the household. On the contrary, Coontz cites many examples of women who derived satisfaction from it. "Friedan did not recognize that many women found a sense of satisfaction and confidence even from jobs that she assumed her readers would look down on," explains Coontz, citing Friedan's more elitist conception of "fulfillment," which highlighted volunteer work, etc.

Citing researcher Myra Marx Ferree's survey of 115 working-class women in Somerville, Mass., Coontz writes:

The women told her that working outside the home gave them a sense of self-reliance and worth, even when the job itself was far from ideal. "I will never forget the women who worked in a mayonnaise factory, often in water up to their ankles in a refrigerated room," Ferree recalls. "I expected her to say she would prefer not to be working." Instead, the woman made the distinction between her specific job and her self-identity as a worker. "I sure would like to quit THIS job," the woman told Ferree, "but I can't imagine not working."

These women's experiences speak volumes for the kind of demands that would make a difference in most women's lives and help pave the way for women to truly be equal to men--for example, efforts to free women from the labor they still disproportionately bear at home, such as paid maternity leave or government-subsidized child care.

They also speak to the importance of demanding greater protections on the job, freedom from harassment and discrimination in wages and health care, and protection by strong unions. These issues are becoming more important as women come to make up a larger and larger section of a growing low-wage labor force. According to a recent survey of more than 2,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers in 14 cities, the median wage was just $6.15 an hour, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

THE WOMEN'S movement that erupted in the decade after Friedan's book would be more radical than any of the advice dispensed in Friedan's book. Even the National Organization for Women (NOW), which Friedan helped to found in 1966, initially backed more left-wing demands under the influence of the radicalization of the times.

The 1970 Women's Strike for Equality, which Friedan is credited with calling for, put forward radical demands for child care centers, abortion on demand, an end to forced sterilization, and equal opportunity in education and employment. This is a far cry from Friedan's bigoted contention that the discrimination confronted by lesbians was a distraction that threatened to sidetrack the movement and scare people away from the struggle.

It was the radical wing of the early women's rights movement that pushed more conservative groups like NOW--which preferred to keep its focus on women's advancement in business--to take up more left-wing demands and bring them to the center of the political discussion.

Militant actions early on--like the speak-outs of hundreds of women telling their stories of undergoing illegal abortions, for example, or the radical women's takeover of the Ladies Home Journal to demand articles women might want to read, such as "How to get a divorce"--set the stage for more radical demands.

So did the organizing of African American and Latino women, who organized around issues that affected women of color more specifically, like sterilization abuse. Often left out of this history are trade union women who demanded equality on the job.

This is some of the radical history of women rights organizing that we can learn from--and it goes well beyond any sort of "feminine mystique."

Further Reading

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