What we found in The Feminine Mystique!


Three passages from Quindlen: On Monday, we disembarked from Amtrak, blown away by Betty Friedan’s famous text, The Feminine Mystique.

Our copy of the book includes an Introduction by Anna Quindlen. It was written in 2001, aimed at the impending fortieth anniversary of Friedan’s book.

Let’s use three chunks from Quindlen’s text to help praise that brilliant book.

As she starts, Quindlen describes her housewife mother reading the book at the kitchen table in 1964. Many suburban housewives were reading Friedan’s famous book at that time.

Quindlen imagines what her mother was thinking, painfully sketches her life:
QUINDLEN: “Who am I?” my mother must have been asking herself at the table in the kitchen, and with her millions of others who would pore over this painstakingly reported, fiercely opinionated book. My mother had everything s woman after World War Ii was told she could want, told by the magazines and the movies and the television commercials; a husband with a good job, five healthy children, a lovely home in the suburbs, a patio and a powder room. But in the drawer of her bureau she kept a small portfolio of the drawings she had done in high school, the pages growing yellower year by year. My bag lunches for school sometimes included a hard-boiled egg, and on its shell she would paint in watercolors, the face of a princess, a seaside scene. I cracked those eggs without thinking twice.
“Painstakingly reported, fiercely opinionated?” As we read Friedan’s book, we were deeply impressed by both phenomena. But as the book begins, in Chapter 1, it helps us imagine the lives of many women of the early 1960s (and beyond), women like Quindlen’s mother.

Quindlen’s portrait of her mother is especially painful to read. But Friedan’s discussion made us think of many women of that era. It made us wonder about our own mother; it made us think of the deeply troubled mother of someone who became a friend years later; it made us think of a friend from the 1960s whose marriage couldn’t survive the changes unloosed by Friedan’s book. It made us think of the young wife of a young high school teacher who was decent enough to give Friedan’s book to our own sister in 1963, just as she was finishing high school and heading off to college.

Friedan was writing about millions of women. In this next excerpt, Quindlen uses a word Friedan herself rarely employed:
QUINDLEN: What Friedan gave to the world was “the problem that has no name.” She not only named it but dissected it. The advances of science, the development of labor-saving appliances, the development of the suburbs: all had come together to offer women in the 1950s a life their mothers had scarcely dreamed of, free from rampant disease, onerous drudgery, noxious city streets. But the green lawns and big corner lots were isolating, the housework seemed to expand to fit the time available, and polio and smallpox were replaced by depression and alcoholism. All that was covered up in a kitchen conspiracy of denial. “If a woman had a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself,” Friedan wrote, based on both her reporting and her own experience.

This was preposterous, she argued...
In Friedan’s first chapter, she frequently describes the “desperation” many suburban housewives were feeling—a “desperation” that had no name, felt by women who all assumed it reflected some problem unique to them. Friedan rarely used the word “depression,” but we kept thinking that this was the condition she was diagnosing in these unhappy lives.

Before we read Friedan’s book this weekend, we had no idea how deeply brilliant it was. A third take-away from Quindlen's text supplies us with two more key words:
QUINDLEN: In those forty years, The Feminine Mystique has sometimes been devalued. Friedan the author became inextricably intertwined with Friedan the public figure, the latter often identified with internecine squabbles with other feminist leaders and a combative public persona. In hindsight the shortcomings of the book become clear. Too much attention is paid to the role of institutions and publications in the reinforcement of female passivity, too little to the role of individual men who have enjoyed the services of a servant class and still resent its loss. Friedan’s own revisiting of the material in The Second Stage (1981) was not as rigorous or well-researched as The Feminine Mystique had been. While she attempted to make valid points about why some women have chosen to embrace childrearing and a domestic life, the revisionist message of this second book appeared to be an apologia for the ferocity of her first.
We can’t say we agree with the heart of that passage, but we hail it for its use of two words: “combative” and “ferocity.” Was Friedan combative in some way? If not, she never would have had the gumption to write such a great, street-fighting book, in which she announced herself to the world and said she can lick every man (and woman) in the house. The sheer ferocity of the book is part of what made it most startling: In Chapter 5, Friedan brutally takes out Sigmund Freud, then does the same for Margaret Mead in Chapter 6.

They were the giant, controlling intellectual figures of the age. According to Friedan's ferocious text, it was time for them to go.

Set aside the minor question of whether every word is right; we were amazed by the gumption involved in such an undertaking. And the passion of the author is evident on every page. You will rarely encounter a book whose author believes her case so strongly and can argue her case so well.

Good God, what an astonishing book! We’d seen the standard yapping complaints as the 50th anniversary drew near. Yapping-dog pundits will always perform that imitation of service. But Friedan, who knew about Quindlen’s mother, wrote a gigantic, brilliant text, one of the greatest texts we have ever encountered.

Ignore the yapping complaints you may have heard. This book is hugely worth reading—and it does seem modern in one key respect. The book describes a failing culture overwhelmed by faux experts and faux journalists. The problems have changed in the past fifty years, but the structure has seemed to endure.

Friedan’s complaint seems familiar. Friedan had to lick every man in the house because, in her account of the 1950s, all the experts and all the journalists had agreed that they would All Say The Same Things. Quindlen’s mother was one of the losers in this familiar but sorry social arrangement. Luckily, a brilliant and ferocious observer happened to come along.

That portrait of Quindlen’s mother hurts. That pain is found on every page of this angry, astonishing book.


  1. Your enthusiasm for Friedan's book is so infectious I looked it up on Amazon. Imagine how disappointed I was to learn that the introduction for the fiftieth anniversary edition is written by ... Gail Collins.

    1. Oh, God. It shouldn't be hard to find a used copy without Lady Collins polluting the pages.

  2. The interest in women's issues and the welfare of minority children exhibited by the Howler, being a White male of a certain age, suggests a generosity of spirit to which I can only aspire. Even though I don't.

    I've never read Friedan's book, but I've always assumed it consisted largely of a meditation on the life of bored sixties housewife, deprived of all meaning and purpose by an armory of labor-saving devices, reduced, like an old-time European blue blood, by her enervating leisure to ask, "Is this all there is?"

    As a male frequently put off by the moaning and groaning of women (of the wrong variety, at least), I always considered Friedan's manifesto to be a response, if not a reaction, to Hugh Hefner's call for the liberation of the average American frustrated chump shuffling off to his miserable job every day, only to have his wages confiscated by a bunch of spoiled brats and a whining, complaining wife always carping about, "Is this all there is?"

    Fifty years ago it was "The Feminine Mystique." Today I'm seeing books on the shelves titled, "The End of Men." Today's radical screed must surely become tomorrow's policy.

    I wouldn't be surprised to hear those buxom blondes are spiking Hef's viagra with some kind of carcinogen.

    1. I hear what you are saying, but I'd like to point out that Hefner's "Playboy Philosophy" was actually a call for the sexual liberation of women as well as men. After all, it takes two to tango, and forgive me for not thinking up a better cliche.

      I'd also like to add on a personal, anecdotal note, that yes, I have consoled many a devastated young friend in the 1970s and 1980s whose young wives, after a few years of marriage, suddenly broke the news that they were feeling "unfulfilled" and (nearly a universal line) "weren't growing as a person" and thus wanted a divorce, made much easier by the "no-fault" laws that were part of second-wave feminism.

      At the same time, without a doubt second-wave feminism brought with it far many more positive outcomes, some of whom are still not completely fulfilled (such as pay inequality).

      While the glass ceiling persists, there are opportunities opened to women that they never could have dreamed of before 1960, as the brainpower and talents of women -- have the population -- have been given the opportunity to flourish as never before.

      Doesn't mean we're done by any means, but things are a lot different for women today than they were 50 years ago.

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  3. There is, of course the drudgery of limited expectations and limited opportunity, but part of that angst was articulated too by the great -Alexander Solzhenitsyn who talked about the soulless consumerism of the West.

    I think there is an allegory in the Bible story of the a Tower of Babel, where God causes the people to speak in different languages in order to prevent them from coalescing into a body that would storm heaven.

    What are we to do when everyone sounds a like? When we all must speak "mandarin". Who can go against such a monolith?

    Friedan did in her way. Solzhenitsyn certainly did. Barbara Bush added her piece in her statement that on their death beds, it would not be the career successes that women pondered and treasured.

    We don't live in "interesting times", as much as stupid, vacuous, and autocratic ones.

  4. Now that Somerby's mind has been opened again by re-reading The Feminine Mystique, perhaps he can go through his incomparable archives and see for himself the difference in words and tone he employs depending on whether he is criticizing a male or female.

    And yes, there has been quite a remarkable difference.

  5. What's odd about the posts on this book (which reminded me that I did read it, long long ago) is Bob's hostility with those who would dare "yap" against it. She wanted to write a provocative book, and some were provoked. Wasn't that the point?

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