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.

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.

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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