Just about everyone alive in 1963 remembers where they were when John Kennedy was shot. In the same way, a lot of us today remember where we were and how we felt when we read The Feminine Mystique.
Mystique was published in that pivotal year 1963, although I didn’t read it until 1969. It took some time for second-wave feminism to reach the Ozarks.
The power of Mystique was in its revelation of something we already knew but weren’t yet cognizant of knowing. Her description of The Problem That Has No Name reached deep into our heads. It hauled truth from a deep, subconscious place into the clarity of full consciousness.
Some of Friedan’s speculations on why women had become so marginalized in the post World War II era don’t stand the test of time, to be sure. But though her theories of the cause of the disease may have been flawed, she diagnosed the illness perfectly. Women were moved by Mystique not because they were intellectually persuaded, but because they recognized themselves in its pages.
Patricia Sullivan writes in the Washington Post: “Her insights into what she described as the soul-draining frustrations felt by educated, stay-at-home women in the 1950s, ‘the problem that has no name,’ startled a society that expected women to be happy with marriage and children.” Startled puts it mildly. Mystique set souls on fire.
Mystique was less a catalog of the oppression of women throughout time than an exploration of the way sexual stereotyping and gender roles had changed after World War II, and how as a result women in the 1960s were leading desperately constricted lives. I think you had to be there to understand how much the world has changed since then. Even the most hidebound, conservative traditionalists in America today would be considered “liberal” on women’s issues by the standards of 1963. Although many won’t admit it, in a sense we’re nearly all feminists now.
Second-wave feminism started out as a movement of mostly educated and reasonably affluent white women. It caught some flack for that, but as I remember the suffragette movement was also fueled mostly by educated and reasonably affluent white women. This is possibly because it took some education and some affluence to launch a women’s movement at all; poorer and less well educated women were too crushed by circumstance to even think about movements.
Also, originally, it focused a great deal on marriage and family issues, on taking on the roles of wife and mother without completely losing yourself in the process.
I heard Friedan speak once, at the University of Missouri ca. 1972. She said one thing I still remember — I never said marriage and children weren’t important things in a woman’s life. I said they weren’t the only things in a woman’s life. Sullivan of WaPo continues,
Friedan’s was a voice that was loud, insistent and sometimes divisive. She split with NOW in the 1970s after she came to believe that the organization focused too many resources on lesbian issues and that too many feminists hated men. Her 1981 book “The Second Stage” prompted some feminists to denounce her as reactionary.
I’m not so sure she split with NOW as was driven out of it. In the 1970s, I well remember, many NOW chapters became more radicalized, which alienated many of the same educated and reasonably affluent white women who had embraced second wave feminism in the 1960s. I don’t know how much of this was the fault of feminist leadership, or whether it was just another aspect of the “eating their own” frenzy the American Left was experiencing at the time. In any event, Friedan’s concerns about how to be a wife and mother and feminist at the same time became passÃ©.
When the Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat ca. 1980 the feminist movement splintered into myriad feminisms; IMO there really hasn’t been “A Feminist Movement” since except in the imaginations of righties who continue to demonize it. Yet by then American women had accomplished much to break the constraints of the 1950s.
Betty Friedan died of congestive heart failure yesterday. She was 85 years old.
What else can I say, but —You did good, Betty. Thanks.