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Friedan’s Feminine Mystique Turns 50

BU faculty, alums ponder landmark book’s legacy tonight

Boston University BU, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 50th anniversary of Feminine Mystique,

The BU Alumni Association and the College of Arts and Sciences is hosting a panel discussion tonight, February 7, celebrating and discussing the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique by groundbreaking second-wave feminist Betty Friedan. Painting (1995) by Alice Matzkin. Photo courtesy of Clifford's Photography

Now 50 years old, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was named by the conservative magazine Human Events in 2005 as one of the “most harmful” books of the 19th and 20th centuries. That, writes New York Times columnist Gail Collins in her introduction to the new anniversary edition, is testimony to “the wallop it packed.” The book, which sold 1.4 million copies in its first paperback printing, marked the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States, and its impact, said Future Shock author Alvin Toffler, “pulled the trigger on history.” Friedan’s observations sparked a passionate discussion that continues today about the role of women both at home and in the workplace.

Friedan, who died in 2006 at 85, addressed frankly “the problem with no name”: the fact that educated post–World War II homemakers—back then called housewives—were unhappy, undervalued, and unfulfilled. “If you want to understand what has happened to American women over the last half-century,” writes Collins, “you have to start with this book.”

Tonight, in an event hosted by the BU Alumni Association and the College of Arts and Sciences, a panel of faculty and alumni scholars led by Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences, will consider the book’s enduring legacy. “Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was interesting to those of us who were part of the younger and more radical part of the feminist movement that arose in the late 1960s,” says Sapiro, “but the real impact of this book was on a different group of women—in many cases, our mothers’ generation, who had done everything that was expected of them by focusing their lives as much as they could on their husbands, children, and homes, and then found themselves feeling empty, bored, and somewhat crazed.”

As Friedan put it in the book’s legendary opening page, “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” In addition to writing four other nonfiction books and a memoir, Friedan helped found major women’s rights organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Sapiro will be joined tonight by Caryl Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism, and three prominent BU alumnae: Eileen Boris (CAS’70), a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor of feminist studies, history, and black studies, Roberta Salper (CAS’59), a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, and Susan Reverby (GRS’82), Wellesley College’s Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas and a professor of women’s and gender studies.

BU Today asked Reverby to weigh in on the impact of Friedan’s book over the decades, and the battles feminists face today.

Cover page of The Feminine Mystique book by author Betty Friedan

Photo courtesy of Atwood Vintage

BU Today: How does The Feminine Mystique resonate today, and in what ways, if any, is it outdated?

Reverby: It came out when I was in college, and I only read it when I began to teach women’s studies and had to take it on. I think the issue of the balance of work and family is still the unfinished business of the women’s movement. What makes it outdated, and made it so even when it came out, was its focus primarily on white middle-class women and the promise of work as the salvation.

Why should young women read the book?

Because it names a problem that still exists and now has a name. It is about the assumption of women as different and tied forever to home and family.

Do you agree with historian and author Stephanie Coontz that “feminism was always more of a response to women entering the labor force than its cause.” Has paid work become more meaningful, if not profitable, for most American women?

I absolutely agree with Coontz. Work in the paid labor force had always been the norm of certain groups of women. It isn’t till 1950, however, that the leading occupation for women stops being domestic service. The expansion of white collar and service work drew women into the workforce.

I have trouble with the use of the term “profitable.” What women often like is the control over their own money, the ability to feel successful in their labors. But it all depends on what kind of control over work you have and whether there are options not to work. Most families cannot obtain a reasonable standard of living without two family members working, especially when the chances are that one of them will be laid off.

The Feminine Mystique has been translated into a dozen languages since 1963. Is its message only just beginning to resonate in some parts of the world?

It is not the same message everywhere, nor should it be. The focus and concerns for women really do differ by country, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability status, and so forth. So if you mean the key message that women should be valued as individual human beings in a collective society, then yes.

We hear of women giving up or putting on hold high-powered careers because they want, and can afford, to be home with their children. But does “home with the children” mean something different today than in Friedan’s time?

Yes, it does, because it is not seen as the only place women are supposed to be. What Friedan was critiquing was the locking away of primarily white middle-class women in the home.

Should the word “housewife” be retired for some more modern framework?

Ms. Magazine played around with multiple ways to talk about housework in differing terms 30 years ago. I have always liked house manager or house engineer. Economists have made lists of what it might cost if you have to pay someone to do all the things that are required to keep a home clean and repaired, children fed and clothed, animals walked, elders cared for, and all the rest. It is a fortune. So maybe we should call it CEO of social reproduction.

It seems women are still defined by whether they’re mothers; we are pummeled with news of this or that person’s “baby bump.” Are women still marginalized for their choices, and what do you think Friedan would make of this?

Feminism clearly did not solve all the problems that women face and Friedan would be the first one to say this. What we need is not individual solutions, but a commitment on the part of society and government to make work-family tensions less onerous. So we need child care that isn’t so expensive, sick child care that can be afforded, and also the valuing of fatherhood not as sign of sperm-ic performance, but rather of caregiving.

How much of women’s disaffection and isolation that Friedan wrote about stemmed from the postwar migration to the suburbs and the resulting loss of community?

I think this is crucial. Think about the Boston triple-deckers, for example, and how much families lived together. You are in single-family suburban house; parents are miles and miles, if not continents, away.

Collins writes in her introduction to the new edition, “When it hit the stands, women who were feeling bored and trapped by their perfect homes and marriages picked up the book and mentally repositioned themselves in the world.” How much of that repositioning has stuck and been passed to the next generation, and have women retreated at all?

It is never the same generation after generation. The issues change, and the economy has shifted. I don’t think women have retreated at all. They are just trying to balance what is possible.

Friedan wrote about the commodification of women and using women’s bodies to sell products. Do you see progress in this respect?

I see more consciousness that this is happening. We don’t see ads any more that say, “I’m Susan, fly me.” But are we still using bodies to sell things, of course. We are just more aware of it and can read them more carefully.

Many young woman of my generation had the books of Friedan, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, and Simone de Beauvoir. We were all fired up, believing we had freedom and respect like no generation before us. Yet, throughout my writing career, national women’s magazines kept assigning stories about how to be thin or look as young as possible, or if I proposed a profile of a fascinating woman, I’d be asked, what does she look like? Will this change?

Gloria Steinem wrote a lot about the pressure on the magazines to sell products to women that play on our concern with our figures, our sex appeal, and so on. So part of the pressure is still there. Think about the fact too that the president felt he should comment on his wife’s bangs, or that how Hillary Clinton did her hair was news. I bet we won’t see this for John Kerry unless he gets $400 haircuts like John Edwards.

Wellesley’s anniversary theme was “women who will.” I see my students struggling to think about what feminism means now across the globe. They are reading and thinking about this, on blogs and in conversations, in college and workplaces, if not by reading the same books or through the consciousness-raising groups we had. You should expect this.

The 50th Anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, part of the CAS Discoveries Lecture Series, is tonight, February 12, at 7 p.m. at the School of Management Auditorium, 595 Commonwealth Ave., first floor. The event is free and open to the public. Those who plan to attend are urged to register in advance here.


One Comment on Friedan’s Feminine Mystique Turns 50

  • MoonBatman on 02.12.2013 at 10:01 am

    There is no shame in virtues that are considered feminine, such as mercy and inclusiveness. Men need to learn to be more nurturing and empathic as much or more than women need to absorb traditionally masculine characteristics of assertiveness or willfulness. A mind inside a body inside a home, in a suburb of a city of a nation which is wrongly oriented will replicate its values and feel its emptiness, regardless of gender.
    Women, especially as givers of life, can remain the “object” of desire, emulation, even worship, without giving into those values of acquisitiveness or possessiveness; that, I believe, is the feminine mystique. http://www.ted.com/talks/zahra_langhi_why_libya_s_revolution_didn_t_work_and_what_might.html

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