On rereading The Feminine Mystique!


A stunning piece of work: A few years ago—we don’t recall why—we spent some time reading Betty Friedan’s famous book, The Feminine Mystique.

Last weekend, we took the book with us on the train, inspired in part by a backward glance at the famous tome in the New York Times.

In the hard-copy Times, Jennifer Schuessler’s piece bore a familiar but tiresome headline: “Looking Back at a Domestic Cri de Coeur: Criticisms Of a Classic Abound.”

Typical! Use of the term “cri de coeur” inserted some snark right into the headline (which Schuessler presumably didn't write). Beyond that, a gang of little, yapping dogs seemed to be nipping at a great writer’s heels, as seems to be required by law in pundit pseudo-culture.

Criticisms of this famous book “abound,” we were told in the headline. And oh dear God, what criticisms! Example: In a piece which ran 1200 words, Schuessler devoted a chunk of space to this:
SCHUESSLER (2/19/13): In a new round table in the journal Gender and Society, [Stephanie] Coontz acknowledges that it is not known how many readers of ''The Feminine Mystique'' became politically active, or how many second-wave feminist leaders had even read the book. Indeed, Friedan was hardly without her critics in the movement, who blasted what they saw as her myopic focus on educated white women or her sometimes over-the-top language, whether she was comparing suburbia to ''a comfortable concentration camp'' or warning the National Organization for Women, which she help found in 1966, against an encroaching lesbian ''menace.''

Some scholars, however, have defended aspects of Friedan's work that sound most outlandish to contemporary ears. In an essay excerpted in the new Norton critical edition, Kirsten Fermaglich, a historian at Michigan State and the volume's co-editor, argued that Friedan was hardly the only Jewish thinker of the period to make use of extended Nazi metaphors while saying nothing about Jews. The historian Stanley Elkins, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and the psychologist Stanley Milgram, she wrote, all used Nazi concentration camps, much as Friedan did, as a metaphor for mass society's destruction of the individual.
To state the obvious, whatever Friedan may have said in 1966 wasn’t part of her famous book, which appeared in 1963. The term “concentration camp” is found in the book; it's part of a chapter title. That said, by the time we reach the concentration camp complaint, we are on very familiar ground, in which generations of useless people find small, tedious problems with works which extend light-years beyond their range.

Schuessler’s piece is well worth reading. We’re glad it helped us decide to take Friedan’s book with us on the train. That said, some complaints seem exceedingly small—for example, this one:
SCHUESSLER: That phrase, of course, became famous when ''The Feminine Mystique'' was published, 50 years ago on Tuesday, to wide acclaim and huge sales, and it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish. But her book has been shadowed by its share of critics ever since, including many otherwise sympathetic scholars who have doggedly chipped away at its own mystique.

Friedan, who died in 2006, was not just the frustrated ''housewife'' of her official biography, they point out, but a former left-wing journalist and activist whose jeremiad appeared in a climate that was more primed to receive it than she might have admitted.
In Friedan’s “official biography,” was she just a frustrated housewife? We don’t know. But it is plain, all through her actual book, that she had been a professional writer for women’s magazines in the years before she wrote The Feminine Mystique.

She frequently cites her experience within that world, a world she harshly criticizes. But it’s a familiar part of pseudo-culture that the little dogs will yap their complaints, “doggedly chipping away at” substantial pieces of work. Indeed, in the passage which follows, Schuessler seems to give voice to a very familiar complaint:
SCHUESSLER: ''The Feminine Mystique'' tends to be hailed simply as ''the book that started second-wave feminism,'' said Lisa M. Fine, a historian at Michigan State University and a co-editor of the first annotated scholarly edition, just published by Norton. ''But it's a much more complicated text.''

Indeed, some cracking its spine for the first time—as more than one commentator on the 50th anniversary has sheepishly confessed to doing—may be surprised at just how scholarly the book is. Friedan, who claimed she gave up a prestigious Ph.D. fellowship in psychology after a boyfriend said it would threaten their relationship, spent years in the New York Public Library, digging as deeply into the theories of Freud, Margaret Mead, A. H. Maslow and David Riesman as into the women's magazines she blasted for perpetuating the mythology of the ''happy housewife.''

Today that immersion in midcentury social science may make the book feel dated and more of a symbolic totem than a direct inspiration to current feminists.
This famous book is hard, this criticism almost seems to be saying. Of course, all over our pseudo-discourse, this complaint will arise when the fatuous souls who pose and preen are asked to peruse an entire book, or even when they are forced to sit through an entire speech or lecture.

(Do you remember when Dana Milbank complained about all the big words Gore used in a talk? In our last post, Sam Donaldson complained that George Stephanopoulos was being “very cerebral.”)

We’re sure there are problems with Friedan’s book, but we are very glad that Schuessler’s piece helped us decide to take it on the train. We were stunned by this book’s power as we read it going and coming. And uh-oh!

For us, the chapter on Freud was especially striking, for reasons we will describe another day. It didn’t make the book feel dated. It made the book feel very powerful, and it made us admire its author.

Good lord, what a remarkable book! It didn’t “feel dated,” not on a weekend when we watched a circus clown tell a roomful of famous women, on worldwide TV, that he has “seen their boobs.” (The women were expected to chuckle, proving that they are good sports.) Indeed, we were so stunned by Friedan’s book that we revisited that cascade of criticisms which we’d perused in the Times.

Same old story, we found ourselves thinking. Tomorrow, we’ll start to discuss what we found so impressive in Friedan’s deeply passionate text.

That said, if you want a brilliant book to read, you can do a great deal worse than this 50-year-old text. We’ve read few books to match this book.

Tomorrow, we’ll start to say why.


  1. Thank you for this. I'm going to get a copy of the book to read. And any "scholar" who thinks in 1963 things were "primed" to be sympathetic to feminists is dumber than a bag of hammers.

  2. Now after you have finished re-reading this book, Bob, go back into your incomparable archives and read all the posts you wrote about the "spanking" Maureen Dowd got from Clark Hoyt.

    1. Yes, the term "spanking" must by definition represent a sexist assault on Dowd, whose own work, never dirtying itself with such clearly gender-based trifling, extends light-years beyond Somerby's range.

      No wait, that's nonsense.

      All of Dowd is about avoiding seriousness and reveling in offensive gender stereotyping.

      Should we be shocked, Anonymous, that you exemplify for us those generations of useless people who find small, tedious problems?

  3. My late mother, 51 when this book was published and "just a housewife," was thunderstruck by it, carried it around with her for days with glassy eyes, looking like enlightenment had just hit for the first time in her life. She didn't talk much about it (I was too young to have a clue anyway) and it didn't change her life at that point. But what it did for her is what it did for so many women of that era, it described and validated so much of what they felt and experienced, feelings they thought were oddball and not experienced by other women.

    I finally read it myself some 15 years later, by which time the women's movement was well under way and it was thought "old hat" and a bit conservative. It knocked my socks off and I understood that odd, wide-eyed look my mother's eyes had while she was reading it and thinking about it.

    Young people today I think have a hard time even imagining how suffocating life was for married women in the '50s and '60s and how they were so routinely belittled. It's worth seeing that documentary about Gloria Steinem that's gotten some publicity. It's peppered with clips from television news broadcasts and newsreels of that era that enraged me to the point of sputtering obscenities all over again at their mocking condescension.

    Anybody who wants to complain and nitpick about the book, especially women, can just STFU as far as I'm concerned.

  4. I've had it sitting on my shelf for probably 10 years. This seems like a good time to actually read it. "The Daily Howler Book Club".

  5. But remember as you read it, after all the GOP "War on Women" last year, Mitt Romney still got 56 percent of the married, white female vote -- the very people Betty Friedan wrote about.

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