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.

Betty Friedan. Click image to expand.
Betty Friedan 

The impact of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique on American women has been hotly debated ever since the book hit the best-seller lists in 1963. In the last year, Friedan's legacy has been the target of yet another round of attacks, prompted by the finding that women in the United States and most of Europe now report themselves slightly less happy and satisfied with their lives than they did 35 years earlier, while men report themselves happier now than in the past.

Conservatives pounced: "Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of 'the problem with no name,'" wrote Ross Douthat in the New York Times (May 25, 2009), but "the feminist era may have delivered women to greater unhappiness." Meghan Cox Gurdon gloated in the Washington Examiner (May 27, 2009) that "wherever egalitarian feminism has sprinkled its fairy dust, women report that they are considerably less happy and satisfied with life than were their benighted, patriarchy-oppressed, apron-wearing sisters of yore." Conservative bloggers and radio commentators dredged up National Review's Kate O'Beirne 2006 book, Women Who Make the World Worse, with Friedan's name on the list.

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Anti-feminists have been blaming women's problems on Friedan's The Feminine Mystique for almost 50 years, so I initially ignored the new brouhaha. But this April, an article in More by prominent feminist Naomi Wolf claimed that Friedan did indeed popularize a "focus on personal choice at the expense of everything else." As a result, in Wolf's view, second-wave feminists elevated the search for personal fulfillment above "the First Wave feminists' impersonal goal of transcendent justice." Their emphasis on individual gratification for women has since "mingled with other messages of consumer capitalism" to fuel a stress-inducing preoccupation with "self-assertion at costs."

There are many weaknesses in the analysis Friedan offers in The Feminine Mystique, as I discovered in the four years I just spent studying Friedan's book and its impact on women who read it at the time. But a preoccupation with personal gratification is not one of them. In fact, a central message of The Feminine Mystique was to warn women against the blandishments of consumer capitalism and its temptations to focus on shallow definitions of happiness.

Wolf is rightly skeptical of the anti-feminist claim that women were happier in the past, pointing out that historical comparisons of reported happiness overlook the ways that women tamped down their expectations when they had few options for challenging unfair relationships at home or at work. A 1962 Gallup poll, for instance, reported that women were the happiest people on earth because, as one housewife reported "a woman needs a master-slave relationship whether it's husband and wife or boss-secretary." Buried in the article was the astonishing fact that almost 90 percent of these self-reported happy housewives hoped their daughters would not follow in their footprints.

Yet while crediting Betty Friedan and Western feminism for fanning discontent about inequality and raising women's aspirations, Wolf argues that they also started women down a "perilous path" in which self-fulfillment became equated with "hyper-achievement." The ever-expanding quest for more expensive luxury goods and more amazing sexual experiences created artificial dissatisfactions and destabilized interpersonal relationships, she explains. Wolf recounts discussions with budding feminists in India who worry that the freedom and equality Western feminism offers in their professional lives may undermine their deep attachments to family and community life.

I agree with Wolf's critique of the shallow definitions of success and happiness that pervade what Susan Douglas has recently described as "enlightened sexism," a media-driven portrayal of women as having become so personally "empowered" that they will never again have to organize collectively for or against anything. I also welcome Wolf's reminder that the earliest definitions of happiness stressed the joys of using "one's fullest capacities in the service of a larger good" rather than for the personal gratification of wants. And I agree that in the long run, people derive their deepest satisfactions from developing their individual talents in the framework of socially meaningful activities.

But I cannot see how Friedan bears any responsibility for contemporary deformations of the original goals of women's liberation. Betty Friedan can be faulted for many aspects of The Feminine Mystique.She failed to fully acknowledge her political and intellectual debts to others. She endorsed prevailing shibboleths about homosexuality. Her attempt to make the book more palatable for a white, middle-class audience ignored the fact that many African-American women had already freed themselves from that mystique and proudly combined their roles as wives, mothers, workers, and community activists.

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