Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique in Perspective

Betty Friedan put her finger on the “problem that has no name” that had been silently plaguing a number of domestic women of her generation. She received letters of gratitude from all over the country. However, scholars and critics have noted in her book three deficiencies that, I think, augur some of the problems that feminist activists would face in the next two decades. First, Friedan did a good job of describing and defining the problem, and she documented The Feminine Mystique well with numerous stories from suburban housewives. She drew upon questionnaires that she had intended to use for an article in McCall’s.

Nonetheless, she did not offer practical steps for women wanting to leave their “Stepford Wives” existence and experience a life outside the home. Second, although Friedan had a background in left-wing political causes and was keen to expose the program of social engineering in mainstream conservative America, she underestimated the degree to which men would cling to their dominant status. Radical and socialist feminists would criticize the goals of Friedan and NOW as insufficient and even delusional. Lastly, the problem for Friedan was a problem for white middle-class housewives. Many minority women, who had to work long hours and who faced racial discrimination, could not relate to the suburban boredom that Friedan was discussing. Moreover, Friedan did not address the needs of the “Lavender Menace,” the Lesbian community emerging in the late 1960s. Consequently, as one writer has it, “Friedan’s conclusion tended to mirror her own experience.” This experience, moreover, stemmed only partly from her role as a wife and mother of three children in Midwest suburbia. As the historian Daniel Horowitz has brought to light, Friedan developed her ideas also as a labor journalist and activist in leftist politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s—activities she did not mention in The Feminine Mystique. Ultimately, such biographical details do not detract from the value and influence of her book, but they do help place her viewpoint in a broader perspective.  The photograph above shows the founders of NOW. Friedan is in the middle.