The Friedan Mystique
Betty Friedan was a contentious and controver- sial figure during her forty-odd years onstage in the feminism wars, but the newspaper obituaries upon her death in February were remarkably uniform. Just about all of them began on page one, treated Friedan as a major historical figure, and posited that her first big book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), was one of the century’s salient intellectual events. The Washington Post said it had enabled the author to launch the feminist movement “almost single-handedly.” According to the New York Times, not only did the book offer an “impassioned yet clear-eyed analysis of the issues that affected women’s lives,” but readers today would find it “as mesmerizing as it was more than four decades ago.” The Los Angeles Times obituary was even more lyrical: “Melding sociology and humanistic psychology, the book became the cornerstone of one of the 20th century’s most profound movements, unleashing the first full flowering of American feminism since the mid-1800’s.”
A story often told by and about Betty Friedan is that in the decades after The Feminine Mystique, which sold around 3 million copies in the United States alone, women repeatedly came up to her on the street and gushed, “You changed my life!” It is hard to evaluate the literal truth of this tale, but there is no doubt that the many commentators who cited it after her death were collectively endorsing the underlying thought—namely, that their subject had in fact made a huge and beneficial difference in the lives of American women. The Times obituary put it this way: “Though in later years, some feminists dismissed Ms. Friedan’s work as outmoded, a great many aspects of modern life that seem routine today—from unisex Help Wanted ads to women in politics, medicine, the clergy, and the military—are the direct results of the hard-won advances she helped women attain.”
About the Author
Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.