Commentary Magazine

The Friedan Mystique

Betty Friedan was a contentious and controversial 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.”



Two propositions have thus been laid on the table: that The Feminine Mystique is one of the great books of our time, and that Betty Friedan personally bettered the lives of American women. Both seem highly problematic.

I recently read The Feminine Mystique for the first time, and did not find it lyrical or persuasive, much less mesmerizing. The writing is invincibly clunky, the reasoning recurrently wobbly. The book’s argument is presented in fourteen chapters, each endeavoring to make some particular point about the hapless condition of women in America. The first opens with this famous lament:

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 20th 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?”

The picture grows darker as the book’s argument unfolds. A chapter titled “The Crisis in Woman’s Identity” complains about the social conditioning that brainwashes women into thinking the housewife’s role is actually important and fulfilling. A chapter on Freud identifies him as the intellectual founder of the idea that the woman is “inferior, childish, helpless, with no possibility of happiness unless she adjusted to being man’s passive object.” A chapter on women’s colleges berates them for failing to exalt the life of the mind, out of fear that this might interfere with the students’ ability to play their assigned roles as helpmates. In passing, the same chapter also argues that sexually segregated colleges are no less morally offensive than racially segregated colleges. A chapter toward the end of the book characterizes the housewife’s lot as a “comfortable concentration camp.” (Friedan later expressed regret about this last phrase.)

A major problem with the book’s logic is the mismatch between its narrowly circumscribed content and its sweeping conclusions. The conclusions call for large changes in the country’s basic arrangements: “It would be necessary to change the rules of the game to restructure professions, marriage, the family, the home.” Yet the book’s complaint about existing arrangements seems applicable only to a relatively small subset of the female population. The world described in the book’s 400 pages is populated more or less exclusively by upscale, college-educated women raising families in comfortable suburban homes in the 1950’s. This was Betty Friedan’s own world—she and her husband lived in a suburb of New York City—but it was plainly a thin and unrepresentative slice of the national female experience.

On the measures ordinarily cited to gauge a group’s well-being—its freedom, income, status, family situation—the women in this world would appear to have ranked at least one standard deviation above any female population during all of prior human history. The message of The Feminine Mystique is that these privileged women were nevertheless profoundly disturbed. They suffered from “the problem that has no name,” a phrase the author invokes endlessly all through the book, possibly to remind the reader that she herself had discovered this strange malady (“Even the psychoanalysts have no name for it”) or possibly to avoid anything so prosaic as a crisp definition.

In some contexts, the no-name problem seems to mean merely a lack of intellectual “fulfillment” in the homemaker role. But sometimes Friedan seems to be claiming that being a housewife can literally drive a woman crazy. She quotes a doctor who says, “You’d be surprised at the number of these happy suburban housewives who simply go berserk one night and run shrieking through the street without any clothes on.” Elsewhere, acknowledging that many women seem perfectly happy as mothers and homemakers, she warns darkly: “Happiness is not the same thing as the aliveness of being fully used.” She alleges portentously that being sentenced to housewifery is tantamount to being deprived of one’s “personhood”—“forbidden to join men in the world, can women be people?”



In addition to being vague about the nature of the no-name problem, The Feminine Mystique is maddeningly elusive about the evidence for its existence. Friedan tells the reader that her project began in 1957, when she mailed a questionnaire to her Smith College classmates on the 15th anniversary of their graduation. It was the responses to this questionnaire, she writes, that led her to see women as oppressed and unhappy. Surveys conducted by others, she adds, drew similar responses from graduates of Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke, and other elite women’s colleges. Over a span of several years, she also claims to have interviewed many other women, psychologists, and marriage counselors, who presumably sustained the original story line.

But the details of this allegedly massive research effort are obscure. It seems never to have occurred to Friedan that revolutionary findings based largely on survey research are inherently suspect, requiring the researcher to document precisely how the findings were produced. But Friedan never published the questionnaires, described only a few of the questions, and leaves us in the dark about the proportion of respondents that could be categorized as suffering from “the problem that has no name.” (The closest she gets is in the risible statement that 60 percent of her Smith classmates “could not honestly say” they found homemaking to be “totally fulfilling.”) The book features an avalanche of quotations from anonymous sources, innumerable anecdotes—and very few hard data.

Along the way, it also features a fair number of glimpses of Betty Friedan herself. We learn that she graduated summa cum laude from Smith, that she was offered and accepted a one-year postgraduate fellowship in psychology at a California college (unnamed), and that she turned down an offer to renew the fellowship for a second year. We also learn that, at some point in her post-college career, she was a newspaper reporter. She tells us nothing at all about her political orientation in these years, but the fact is that she was an admirer of Stalin’s USSR: the newspaper (also unnamed in the book) was the UE News, published by the United Electrical Workers, a union later expelled from the CIO for its Communist leadership. Nor does she mention that in 1948 she attended the founding convention of the Communist-dominated Progressive party. Whether she was ever a member of the Communist party itself is not entirely clear. In any case she gradually drifted away from its orbit, finally coming to rest as a standard Left-liberal Democrat.

Finally, we learn from The Feminine Mystique that her own marriage was a shambles. This brings us to an inescapable question: whether the unhappiness Friedan purported to find among affluent suburban women was somehow reflecting her own wretched situation. In principle, of course, a book’s findings should be judged on the evidence put forward by its author and not by details of the author’s life. In principle, the problem that has no name could have been discovered by a suburban housewife who thought her own life was marvelous. But when an author is passionately committed to sensational new ideas for which the evidence is shaky, it is impossible to avoid suspicions about her own problems and predispositions.

And there is no doubt that Betty Friedan’s marriage to Carl Friedman, with whom she had three children, was a disaster. (Soon after their marriage, he dropped the “m” from their name.) They were divorced in 1969, and for many years afterward she said that he had beaten her, to which he responded that he was just trying to defend himself from her physical assaults.

Clearly lacking a touch of class, Carl spent his final years running a website that viciously attacked his ex-wife, not omitting intimate sexual details from their marriage. But he seems to have been right about the beatings. Commenting on the years before their breakup, Betty noted in The Feminine Mystique‘s epilogue:

The anger I had not dared to face in myself during all the years I tried to play the helpless little housewife with my husband—and feeling more helpless the longer I played it—was beginning to erupt now, more and more violently.



Oddly enough, Friedan appears to have been under the impression that her best-seller abounded in hard data. In the epilogue, she presents a pitiable tale of her efforts, while the book was still at the printer, to get a doctorate in social psychology from Columbia University. It seems that the department head patronized and discouraged her:

He was very tolerant and kind, but surely, at forty-two, after all those undisciplined years as a housewife, I must understand that I wouldn’t be able to meet the rigors of full-time graduate study for a Ph.D. and the mastery of statistics that was required. “But I used statistics throughout the book,” I pointed out. . . . He looked blank. “Well, my dear,” he said, “what do you want to bother your head getting a Ph.D. for, anyhow?”

My own experience with The Feminine Mystique is that statistics are seldom put in play, and when the author attempts to use hard data, she is more than likely to botch the job. In a discussion of women who marry too soon, she states: “Today the American population explosion comes in large part from teenage marriages.” In fact, births to women under twenty never exceeded 14 percent of the total. She says that in the early 1960’s the average age of marriage was in the teens. In fact, the median age never fell below twenty. Citing no particular source or date or locale, she writes that juvenile-delinquency rates in the bedroom suburbs were becoming “just as high as those in the city slums.”

The book suffers from an avalanche of what might be called junk data: reports, overwhelmingly from popular women’s magazines, purporting to cast light on the everyday problems—fatigue, boredom, bad news from the bathroom scale—of ordinary middle-class women. The sources most frequently cited in The Feminine Mystique are Redbook, McCall’s, and the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Of course, even if The Feminine Mystique is rated a dreadful book, there remains the possibility that its author did a great deal for American women. This view will seem intuitively plausible to anybody who believes that feminism itself did a great deal for them. There is certainly no doubt that Betty Friedan was one of, arguably the most important of, the movement’s “founding mothers” (to quote again from the many obituaries). Possessed of boundless energy, an instinct for leadership, and self-confidence verging on arrogance, if not megalomania—even the most fawning obituaries felt obliged to mention her dictatorial impulses—she seemed always to be out front during the formative years. In 1966 she was the main founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and in the 1970’s played significant roles in creating the National Women’s Political Caucus (slogan: Make Policy, Not Coffee) and the National Abortion Rights Action League. And the evidence suggests that, despite its flaws, The Feminine Mystique did succeed in articulating the grievances of a certain class of American women while simultaneously packaging an ideology for the nascent movement.

Well, what did feminism do for American women? Many people would argue that it had at least one important and incontestable achievement: the opening-up of broad new career opportunities for women, and especially for those with a claim to intelligence and education, like many of the suburban homemakers described in The Feminine Mystique. But this argument needs to be seriously qualified.

During the years in which the movement was taking shape, something else was happening: an explosion in the number of educated women: the number of female college graduates in America more than tripled (to around 5 million) from 1940 to 1970. It is inconceivable that this swelling supply could have long existed without creating its own demand in the labor markets. With or without a feminist movement, educated women would have seen opportunities opening up. Indeed, it is fascinating to speculate on a counterfactual scenario wherein they would have received their opportunities without the unpleasant side-effects of movement feminism: without sexual warfare, affirmative action, boundless litigation, and maybe even without the raging political correctness that would make it increasingly troublesome, even for a president of Harvard, to mention the possibility of innate differences between men and women.

A difficulty for anyone who wants to believe in Betty Friedan and also in the feminist movement is that she herself became a critic of it. During the 1970’s, she was increasingly unhappy with its emphasis on lesbian concerns and obsessive anti-male rhetoric. In 1981, she produced The Second Stage, a book intended to bring feminism back to its senses—to reestablish its relevance for heterosexual women who expected to marry and have children. Referring to women’s “femininity,” she complained in the opening chapter: “We blush even to use that word now.” Her new position brought on breaks with other feminist icons, including Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.

But The Second Stage did not have the resonance of The Feminine Mystique, and utterly failed in its effort to force the movement back on track. Part of the problem here was that even while disagreeing with the movement’s radicals, she shared many of their basic assumptions. Like them, Friedan assumed that the women’s movement must always be on the Left. Like them, she took it as axiomatic that, aside from certain reproductive differences, men and women were indistinguishable. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter began talking about a military draft and indicated that such a draft would include women; quite a few women proved unthrilled by the prospect, and The Second Stage, which appears to have been written at about this time, registers concern about such women. They are said to be demanding equal rights while failing to accept equal responsibility.

Another difficulty with the book is a major muddle about the meaning of “the second stage.” Right off the bat, the reader is hit with many different and conflicting formulations, some verging on the eschatological, about exactly what will happen when we finally arrive there. One daring thought: “The second stage may not even be a women’s movement. Men may be on the cutting edge of the second stage.”



It didn’t exactly work out that way. The real second stage featured the perceptible decline and collapse of a feminist movement presided over entirely by females. Nobody today cares much what NOW says or does. It could not conceivably produce 100,000 women to march down New York’s Fifth Avenue, as it did in its glory days in the early 1970’s. Its flagship magazine, Ms., which once had a circulation of 300,000, still exists as a quarterly, but you will have trouble finding it on newsstands.

As argued in the obituaries, some part of the movement’s decline reflects its past victories. Abortion, equal pay, equal opportunity in college sports, no “Men Wanted” ads in the papers, no mistletoe at office Christmas parties—virtually all the demands have been met. Feminism’s only real defeat was the Equal Rights Amendment, which Friedan and NOW and battalions of liberal politicians identified as a sacred cause, indispensable to the well-being of the country’s women—but which sank like a stone after its ratification finally failed in 1982. It might still be revived if only its supporters could explain why, in a country where women have the vote, and constitute a majority of the voters, we need to amend the Constitution so as to secure their rights. Pending an answer to that question, the movement would appear to lack any coherent agenda.

But even this may not be the largest obstacle it faces. The crusher is that it has managed, over the years, to alienate millions of young women. Here a central problem, dating back to the 70’s, has involved what Betty Friedan then characterized as the Lavender Menace—the creeping identification of the women’s movement with lesbianism. NOW’s own formulation is that it defends the rights of all women, but it has long been obvious that lesbians, who comprise perhaps 4 percent of American women, are wildly overrepresented in the movement’s leadership. A defining moment was the 1991 announcement by Patricia Ireland, a married woman who had just been elected president of NOW, that she would henceforth be spending much of her time with a female companion. She went on to serve ten years as president of the organization, which sponsored a Lesbian Rights Summit at a Capitol Hill hotel in 1999.

For an organization nominally representing women in general, the alliance with lesbianism would appear to be thoroughly irrational—and yet not entirely crazy. Once the economic victories had been won, and it became increasingly difficult to find new issues with broad-based appeal, a case could be made that the movement’s best bet was to settle for a niche market. Just now, with the arrival of same-sex marriage as a hot issue, the lesbian market looks lively. NOW appears passionately committed to this cause, for which it has crusaded since 1995.

A final obstacle to the resurrection of the women’s movement is that Americans have been gradually discovering that its core proposition is false. In the 1960’s and 70’s, it was still possible for an educated person to believe that the observable differences in male and female behavior reflected only social conditioning—that, as Betty Friedan put it in The Feminine Mystique, women “happen to be the people who give birth,” and nothing much follows from that. But in the 1980’s, even some feminist scholars, notably Carol Gilligan of Harvard, were finding “natural” differences in the moral and psychological tendencies of the two sexes.

Since then, evolutionary research has dealt successive hammer blows to the “social conditioning” perspective. The logic of Darwinian sexual selection has always required substantial differences in male and female behavior, and in recent years evolutionary biologists have been busy filling in the details. In Male, Female (1998), for example, David Geary of the University of Missouri elaborates a range of biologically based sex differences in academic skills, predisposition to violence, accidental death and injury rates, incidence of anxiety and depression, eating disorders, occupational interests, and occupational achievement.



The news that men and women really are different, just as your grandmother assumed, need not change much civilized behavior. It need not affect the rules about equal opportunity in the job markets or in college admissions. It might, however, affect the laws pertaining to such matters, for instance by making it harder to adduce different success rates as prima-facie evidence of discrimination.

And the news might ultimately have a larger effect as well. Leon Kass, who retired in December as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, wrote an essay a few years ago on, of all things, the decline of courtship—a phenomenon he blames largely on the feminist movement and the equal-treatment rules it has always demanded. One passage from the essay is worth quoting at length:

On the one side, there is a rise in female assertiveness and efforts at empowerment, with a consequent need to deny all womanly dependence and the kind of vulnerability that calls for the protection of strong and loving men, protection such men were once—and would still be—willing to provide. On the other side, we see the enfeeblement of men who, contrary to the dominant ideology, are not likely to become better lovers, husbands, or fathers if they too become feminists or fellow-travelers. On the contrary, many men now cynically exploit women’s demands for equal power by letting them look after themselves—pay their own way, hold their own doors, fight their own battles, travel after dark by themselves. These ever so sensitive males will defend not a woman’s honor but her right to learn the manly art of self-defense. In the present climate, those increasingly rare men who are still inclined to be gentlemen must dissemble their generosity as submissiveness.

Betty Friedan and her successors, then, really did change women’s lives, one way or another. It would be pleasant and perhaps not altogether surprising to discover that, in their private lives, even many of those now loudly celebrating her legacy have been quietly working to undo its most injurious effects.


About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.

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