Confession: I just read The Feminine Mystique, 50 years old this month, for the first time. That's embarrassing for a bunch of reasons — I'm a feminist, I'm supposed to be a generally educated person, and Betty Friedan was my grandmother's cousin, so I grew up knowing her.
She actually gave me a copy of the 20th anniversary of her life-altering bombshell of a book for my bat mitzvah, with a lovely inscription. But it seemed weighty and intimidating when I was a teenager, and in college, I somehow took seminars called "Women in the Bible" and "Witches and Saints" rather than a basic women's history or women's studies class.
When Betty died in 2006, I wrote about shopping for clothes with her and my stylish grandmother, and about the amazing march she led down Fifth Avenue in 1970, in honor of the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage. But I only skimmed the book that's at the heart of it all.
Okay, I'm a fraud. I think, though, that I didn't read The Feminine Mystique precisely because it had seeped so deeply into American culture that I figured I had already digested its message. But in her masterful introduction to this 50th-anniversary edition, the New York Times' Gail Collins says that "if you want to understand what has happened to American women over the last half-century, their extraordinary journey from Doris Day to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and beyond, you have to start with this book." She's exactly right.
Here's one tiny example: In the book, Betty recounts giving up a fellowship she won after graduating from Smith, which would have supported her in getting a Ph.D. in psychology, because a boy she liked said their relationship would have to end since he'd never win a fellowship like hers. She writes, "I gave up the fellowship, in relief."
What? In relief? This is inconceivable to me. I don't mean compromising one's career goal for love, which I've done, but giving up a plum opportunity because of a guy's insecurity — that is not in my universe. And that shift captures much of the power of this book, right? For middle-class American women, it changed the whole deal — the aspirations we felt we could have and the reception we expected for them.
When I actually opened the book and started reading, what hit me was Betty's howl of frustration. It's primal, and you feel its desperate force on almost every page. God, did she feel trapped among the slipcovers of the suburbs and in the pages of the women's magazines she wrote for, where big ideas and questions were entirely unwelcome.
The only way to escape was to pulverize the image of the "Happy Housewife Heroine" (HHH) who is the title of Chapter 2. Betty's fiercest critique in this book is of the "mistaken choice" she thinks traditional gender roles forced middle-class women and their husbands to make.
"She ran back home again to live by sex alone, trading in her individuality for security," she writes of the HHH. "Her husband was drawn in after her, and the door was shut against the outside world. They began to live the pretty lie of the feminine mystique, but could either of them really believe it?"
To Betty the answer was no, a thousand times no, and for many of us, who could never have hacked it in the world she helped blow up, and who made our lives in her remade image, the response from the heart has to be thank you.
Of course, it's also true that Betty's battle cry wasn't universal. She has long been criticized for leaving working-class and black women out of the picture in The Feminine Mystique. Collins defends her by pointing out that the specificity of her distress — her laser focus on how educated and relatively well-off women were being sidelined — made the book "supremely, specifically personal, that's what gives it such gut-punching power."
That seems right. Also, Betty was a reporter trying to push her first book out the door — how was she supposed to know she would produce a work of such importance that she'd be held accountable for her omissions? I'm inclined to give her a break, especially because she devoted most of her decades in the women's movement to economic concerns. In my memories of her around the dinner table, she stressed the battle against inequality first and foremost.
Betty's conception of the mistaken choice, however, still has bite. Decades after the publication of her book, women still argue about whether feminism means making any choice, including the choice to stay home, nursing your baby into toddlerhood and baking bread — two activities Betty scorns — or if only certain choices are kosher.
I asked Betty's granddaughter, Nataya Friedan, for her take on the book, and she used that word — sharp — in her answer. "The Feminine Mystique was a sharp portrait of its time, and in that dated quality there is room for a conversation between generations," Taya writes.
"One of her main illustrations was that we can undo the meaningfulness of what the last generation fought for, and, for that reason, these conversations across time are absolutely necessary. Reading The Feminine Mystique today, the sections that feel dated act as a warning cry and the sections that feel completely unconquered, a shock to reality and, as always, a call to get out the door and off the armchair."
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family and kids. Her forthcoming book "Sticks and Stones: The New World of Bullying," will be published next spring.
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