The Feminine Mystique at 50: Did Betty Friedan start the mommy wars?

Maybe Friedan hated homemaking a little too much.

The Feminine Mystique, first edition
The Feminine Mystique, first edition

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Emily, your confession is safe with me, because I’ve got to make a very similar one. Somehow I managed to make it to age 28—and along the way to acquire an American studies degree and make a living writing very often about American women—without even so much as cracking the spine of this book before now. I’m sure you’re right to pinpoint how successful it has been, in many ways, as the reason we both never felt the need to pick it up. I absorbed its lessons from birth: Why the hell would I ever not work? And yet what struck me most about The Feminine Mystique is how very radical it is. I mean, Friedan compares, at chapter length, the plight of women stuck at home with their kids to concentration camp victims. Sure, I’ve never had to sit alone with a mop and a crying baby and no Internet (side question: Was the problem that had no name possibly the lack of Wi-Fi?), but that seems more than a bit extreme to me. In fact, as much as I found myself cheering at the stirring introduction and conclusion, for much of the middle of the book, I was muttering and angrily underlining what I found to be particularly judgmental passages. “A baked potato is not as big as the world,” Friedan writes, “and vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.” Sharp is right! Is it any wonder it occasionally feels like feminism has devolved into a spinning carousel of accusatory blog posts about how your choices aren’t the exact right choices (including your choice to blog about your choices), with this as one of our founding texts?

Some of that reaction, I’m sure, is very particular and personal: I grew up with a whip-smart mom who stayed at home with us, and so I always approach discussions like these with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, alert to any slights whatsoever against the choices and life mission of someone I so love and admire—even if I don’t plan to make precisely the same ones. But more of it is probably generational. For recession-scarred twentysomethings, staying at home or taking menial jobs is involuntary, but not because social mores dictate that women can’t achieve: It’s because so few of us, regardless of gender, have gotten hired at jobs Friedan might consider fulfilling. And given current costs of living and the unsteadiness of the job market, the idea that you’d set out deliberately to support a family of four on a single salary is almost laughable. What was a fresh problem then seems inevitably dated now, and so the book feels, to a modern reader, like 500 pages devoted to diagnosing a problem that our terrible economy has managed to solve once and for all: As our colleague Hanna Rosin has written about at length, in many places up and down the socio-economic ladder, these days it’s the ladies paying the bills.

The result of this shift, at least in my world, is a kind of deep cultural nostalgia for the prosperous postwar lifestyle, and a retreat from the unrewarding world of work into something that the Observer dubbed “New Victorianism” a few years ago. I’m sure Betty wouldn’t be happy to see all the expensively educated young women of Brooklyn, where I live, spending their free time taking floral-arranging classes and knitting and fussily setting up their living rooms just so. (Oh man, the number of times I wrote Park Slope! in the margins when she was describing the breast-feeding-and-baby-obsessed culture of the 1950s. …) She’d probably be appalled by Pinterest, the nesting-obsessed digital inspiration board, which happens to be what all the high-powered lawyers and consultants I went to school with peruse while biding time on conference calls.

But what’s wrong with a softer feminism, 50 years later? I don’t think my peers consider themselves any less serious or less feminist for giving serious consideration to what to serve for dinner, or how they might want to decorate their unborn kid’s nursery. God knows I don’t knit, and someday if I give birth, I regret to say they’ll probably have to pry my laptop from me on the delivery table, but that’s what makes me happy right now at this particular moment. Work doesn’t automatically put you on the road to self-actualization (as Friedan implies it does), and the degree to which it contributes to it probably waxes and wanes at different points in a person’s life. What about women (or men!) who genuinely do find the bulk, or even part, of their creative fulfillment in more traditional homemaking tasks, or at least less corporate ones, and who derive their sense of mission from helping people—even if mostly the ones related to them?

Friedan doesn’t allow for those scenarios, at least among the educated women she’s writing about, and that feels weird. Also oddly missing in the book’s treatment of parenting, was any kind of real consideration of kids’ needs, which we’ve become so obsessed with today: Friedan’s only real yardstick for successfully raised kids seemed to be if they could operate in the world without having their hands held, which is a fine start and very French of her but doesn’t necessarily add up to the formation of a good, well-equipped human.

Oh man, Emily, I haven’t even gotten to her weird obsession with a woman’s ability to regularly achieve orgasm as the single most important metric of female life satisfaction! Or the odd moment in which she tags a rise in autism as possibly the result of unhappy mothers, based on no science whatsoever. Was I reading an issue of Cosmo guest-edited by Jenny McCarthy? But for all my quibbles, I have to acknowledge the great service (and great writing!) of the book. Not that we’ve solved everything, but I was so struck by the scenarios she listed as solutions to the problem: women planning their careers around when they’d have babies, deciding to go freelance rather than trying to make a demanding staff job work. It’s what we’re now called on NOT to do as feminists (“Don’t leave until you leave,” I’ve heard a million times now.) That’s what I’d like to see figured out by the 75th anniversary: actual sympathetic workplace policies in place that let women keep their careers at a fairly full tilt through their child-rearing years.

I guess if the dilemmas outlined in the book still felt super-relevant to my life, Betty would have failed in her task. (And she knew that: “You do have to say ‘no’ to the old way before you can begin to find the new ‘yes’ you need,” she wrote in the epilogue to the edition I read, which is both insightful and true and also made me feel again like I was reading Cosmo.)

So, Emily, do I sound like an ungrateful brat, failing to properly acknowledge the difficult road your grandmother’s cousin paved that I get to travel so happily? What about you, as a parent: What were you struck by that still feels relevant and fresh in here? Did you recognize any contemporary types in her descriptions of the women of the 1950s?