Re-reading The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan.

Betty Friedan.

 “The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. 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?’”

So begins the first chapter - “The Problem That Has No Name” - of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which has just turned 50.

It would be naff of me to lean back in my chair, mop my brow, and with amazement exclaim “I can’t believe it’s been five decades!”, given that I’ve only been alive for 31 years. On the other hand, you don’t have to be 70 years old to appreciate the fact that it’s been 50 years since The Feminine Mystique helped kickstart second wave feminism; it is quite a milestone.


But milestones can quickly become millstones, and on the book’s 50th anniversary - as well as on International Women’s Day 2013, women’s liberation’s annual general meeting - it’s worth taking stock of The Feminine Mystique’s enduring influence.


In looking back at seminal texts - in any field, be it psychology, science, or in this case, feminism - the main question asked tends to be “Is this still relevant?” and, if we are being honest, the answer will in all but the most exceptional cases be “no”.

In the case of The Feminine Mystique, much has changed since 1963, and there was undoubtedly plenty that Friedan didn’t cover even then: it was unquestionably a text that explored an experience predominantly relevant to middle-class white women. To point that out is not to diminish the particular hell that university-educated women found themselves in in the early-’60s - i.e. trapped in suburbia, playing housewife - but whatever its psychic woes, that situation was certainly not the worst place a woman could find herself in.

In her balanced introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Friedan’s book, New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes: “[A]lthough Friedan was writing during the civil rights movement, she barely mentions African-American women. Working-class women make their appearance mainly in a few suggestions that married women who want to work might want to hire a housekeeper or a nanny. Remarkably, Friedan managed to write a whole book indicting American society for its attitudes toward women without discussing its laws. In 1963, most women weren’t able to get credit without a male co-signer. In some states they couldn’t sit on juries; in others, their husbands had control not only of their property but also of their earnings.”

However, it’s not a long bow to draw to trace a path from The Feminine Mystique to the sort of 21st century feminism that, even in this supposedly enlightened age, still ignores and marginalises women who aren’t white and middle class. If the recent behaviour of noted feminist commentators like Caitlin Moran, Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill is anything to go by, mainstream feminism (which is, inevitably, white feminism) is in danger of becoming just as stodgy an old guard as the patriarchy the movement sprung up to dismantle in the first place.

There is often a sense that to not have read certain feminist texts represents a failing in one’s commitment to the movement’s ideals. Certainly there are some big titles that I have tired of midway through, and other less seminal ones that have really blown my mind. The Feminine Mystique was never at the top of my list of favourites; in my youthful insouciance I felt I’d already received a better education in the plight of American housewives from Stephen Sondheim’s blistering The Ladies Who Lunch, and the blood-curdling original Stepford Wives.

I was encouraged somewhat to see literary and film critic Janet Maslin admit in an oped on the topic last month that she had only recently read The Feminine Mystique: “By the time I became a journalist, Friedan’s sleepwalking housewives were so long gone that I could enter the professional world with a short memory and an undisguised advantage.”

When I was about 15, a huge box of feminist books turned up at the local church op-shop. All the accepted classics were represented (The Female Eunuch, Fat Is A Feminist Issue, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and so on) as well as a few oddities (a 1950s-published history of gender-bending entitled The Mysteries Of Sex), and I devoured them all. It was clear even then that there was much about all of the books that had become outdated, but there were also plenty of kernels of truth - and, importantly, the “aha!” moments that Collins’ introductory essay speaks about.

Acknowledging that a text is no longer relevant (“relevant” in its most literal definition) doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. Indeed, many of the seminal feminist texts have tarnished somewhat with age; they are still a vital grounding in the history of the movement. They are important to read to see how far we’ve come (and how far we still have to go).

Like Maslin’s five-decades-late-to-the-party reading of Friedan’s text, my relationship with the book was piecemeal and on-off, read in spurts and never quite finished. But I’m less concerned with the enduring legacy of The Feminine Mystique than I am about the texts we don’t read because the dominant feminist commentary still posits variations on The Problem With No Name as the most compelling issues facing women. I wish that op-shop box of books had included bell hooks and Julia Serano and Angela Davis, too. I wish that the prominent Voices Of Feminism weren’t so often lacking in understanding of intersectional issues.

Fifty years from The Feminine Mystique, we shouldn’t be afraid to assess the state of mainstream feminism and ask the silent question, “Is this all?”