Betty Friedan is not responsible for all of our unhappiness.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 5 2010 11:30 AM

Stop Blaming Betty Friedan

No, she is not responsible for all of our unhappiness.

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But Friedan never advocated a one-sided emphasis on successful, remunerative careers and never promoted personal empowerment through sex or shopping. Many "power feminists" of the 1980s and "Sex-in-the-City" feminists of the 1990s did buy into such market-driven definitions of liberation, which were also promoted by Friedan's contemporary, Helen Gurley Brown, author of 1962's best-seller Sex and the Single Girl. By contrast, Betty Friedan heaped scorn on the idea that a woman could find fulfillment by getting "more money, a bigger house," better sex, or a new husband. The Feminine Mystique explicitly castigated the advertisers and pundits who were already then telling American women that they could find happiness by buying more things or having more orgasms.

Women, Friedan argued, had a fundamental "need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings" by engaging in socially meaningful work. She advised against taking employment just for the money. It would be better, she said, to do volunteer work than settle for a paying job that was not socially useful and did not allow for the full development of a woman's capacities.

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The ideas of Friedan and the second-wave feminists, like those of the first-wave feminists, contain a tension between egalitarian arguments—that women should have as much right as men to pursue personal goals—and transformative ones, the vision of a world where men and women are encouraged to care for their fellow beings as well as to develop their individual potential. Then as now, people could draw on different aspects of feminist ideas to support very different agendas. Advertisers have become adept at identifying liberation with consumerism. Our modern economic system pushes us to equate self-development with ambition.

But reading Friedan would not encourage those budding feminists in India to abandon their deepest personal and familial attachments, and that was certainly not the message that most American women who read The Feminine Mystique at the time of its publication took away from the book. Women who changed their lives in response to Friedan's book disproportionately went into the helping professions. They became teachers. They founded women's centers, domestic-violence shelters, programs for displaced homemakers. They embarked on projects designed to improve the lives of women and children.

Some of the nearly 200 women I interviewed for my book told me that The Feminine Mystique had given them the courage to leave bad marriages. But just as many told me that it had made them stop blaming their husbands for their unhappiness. In either case, few turned their backs on love. Many of the women who left their husbands as part of their feminist awakening radiated with happiness when describing their second husband or, occasionally, their subsequent lesbian partner. Those who stayed in their marriages said their relationships were deepened, not weakened, by the incorporation of meaningful work into their lives.

There are indeed some modern women, feminist and nonfeminist alike, who fear that strong family ties will imprison them. But they are often women whose own mothers had remained trapped in the feminine mystique. Historian Ruth Rosen and sociologist Wini Breines have pointed out that many American women gained a deep suspicion of marriage and motherhood not through reading Friedan but as a result of seeing an old-fashioned male-breadwinner family close up. They came to view their mothers as negative role models—the epitome of all that they did not want to be—and had already decided they would not repeat their mothers' lives. As one woman told me, "Reading Friedan made me realize that I didn't hate my mother. But I did hate her helplessness and subservience to my father."

The Feminine Mystique is very dated in its evidence, its argument, and its target audience. Only a few parts of the book still appeal to my students when I assign it in class. But those parts are precisely the opposite of what many of Friedan's critics claim. My students relate to Friedan's forceful critique of consumerism and "the sexual sell." They applaud her vigorous defense of meaningful, socially responsible work—paid or unpaid—as a central part of people's identity. And they welcome her vehement insistence that when men and women share access to real meaning in their public lives, they can build stronger personal relationships as well.

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Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Wash., and is the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her books include Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage andA Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

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