Let me be clear: Betty Friedan's seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, is brilliant, startling, well-written, clear-sighted, and even better than I anticipated when I first picked it up. Bringing together insight and wide-ranging research to a gendered culture that was on the brink, it's apparent why the book cued a revolution when it was published to enormous acclaim.
There are, however, meaningful oversights in the book. Class, certainly, is a factor that shapes men's and women's lives (particularly work lives); Friedan is more than a little dismissive of it, and makes statements that make my skin crawl about the kinds of work that take "intelligence" and "ability." It would've been a better book if she'd admitted a focus on a certain class of American people at the very beginning, justified it by noting that this is the class promoted and aspired to in most cultural sectors, and avoided class comparisons at all.
Homosexuality is the other. Friedan is quite frank about sexuality in this book, particularly how Freud and popular culture shapes the sexual expectations of suburban couples, how much emphasis is put on it to make people feel "alive" in a stultifying society, and how it inevitably dissatisfies. It's quite fascinating–God knows I learned an enormous amount, particularly about the kind of cultural moment 1963 was, and how stagnating Freudian thought was for so many disciplines. But while Friedan's thinking about sexuality is often wonderful, I cringe when she talks about same-sex acts and actors. She ascribes gayness to stunted "childish" behavior, a product of a culture that intentionally stunts the mental and emotional growth of its women, their mothers. She talks only of gay men, as well, never acknowledging gay women.
Friedan's views on homosexuality weren't much of a surprise; I was aware of the later women's movement that challenged her on just this point, particularly after she referred to gay women as the 'lavender menace' in feminism (spawning, of course, the active organization of gay women called the Lavender Menace).
Still, in a book that is overall so wonderful and smart and empathetic, it pains me that these blind spots puncture it. This is a book I want to share and recommend to others (like you, good Isak reader!)–but I'm loathe to imply an endorsement of Friedan's homosexuality analysis and class blindness.
And while I won't put this on par with my other problems with Friedan's book, there's another thing that makes me cringe: she spells 'fantasy' as 'phantasy.' GAH! It's like a punch in the face, every time.
Nonetheless, The Feminine Mystique is a book that changed the world. In that, it has few counterparts, and even fewer of these counterparts are so well-written as this.
Moreover, while this book is inevitably knitted to its peculiar moment in American history, its insights and ideas bear uncomfortably close to our moment right now.
Consider Katha Pollitt's words, from her eulogy to Friedan after the author's death in 2006:
Well, maybe. Or maybe what looked like choice would be a new incarnation of the mystique in a hot new downtown outfit, wheeling a designer stroller. Or maybe the mystique is gone but the structural obstacles it obscured are still there: job discrimination, the old boys' network, workaholic job cultures, lack of childcare. After all, naming a problem is not the same as solving it. The Women's Strike for Equality, which Friedan helped organize in 1970, called for twenty-four-hour childcare centers, abortion on demand and equal opportunity in education and employment. Not one of those thirty-six-year-old demands has been fulfilled.
Friedan's book is direct, empathetic, and carries, as Pollitt puts it, the "moral seriousness" of a life fully lived. It is a book that sings of human potential, and the utter Greek tragedy of when that potential is suffocated. It is a book with great vision:
What's more, Friedan is clear about how destructive such an infantalizing culture is to every person existing in it, no matter their gender … and she's pointed about how this destructiveness is often not noticed until the sons of it are harmed.
So. The Feminine Mystique. Read it, and be prepared for a thunderous experience–cringe-worthy chapters and all.