The Friedan Mystique

In the first few days after Betty Friedan's death, columnists seemed deeply divided about the relevance of her work today. Judith Warner in The New York Times found her description of the female "problem with no name" still fairly accurate, as marriage for the most part continues to be an unequal bargain between a primary breadwinner and an economically dependent primary parent and toilet scrubber. Meanwhile, at The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus dismissed Friedan's complaints about the tyranny of polished floors and housewifery as so much ancient history.

My own take is that Warner is closer to the truth, although Marcus certainly has a point. In 1960, while Betty Friedan was writing The Feminine Mystique, more than half of all American women over the age of 25 didn't even have a high-school degree, and the number of women in the professions might not have filled one sports stadium. Women were not equal citizens under the law. A woman couldn't buy a house or start a business on her own or even control her own property if she was married. If she dreamed of being a doctor, she studied nursing. Job interviews rarely got beyond the dreaded question: "Can you type?" Domesticity was a life sentence, and there were no domestic goddesses. Comedians made a living putting down their wives and mothers-in-law, and "the little woman" was the term of art for a wife and mother at home, just as "my girl" was shorthand for a man's secretary.

Friedan's great fear -- the fear of her generation -- was that women would be confined to the home and childrearing or subservient low-wage work forever, never to exercise their talents and their powers as far as they might go. Thus the question she and millions of other women asked was "Is this all there is?" Today, we know it isn't, at least in the West, thanks in large part to Friedan and her fellow Civil Rights and women's activists.

Today, her generation's fear has been stood on its head. The new fear is not of being confined to the home, but of being chained to the desk. Young women today don't fear they will never taste the joys of freedom and independence, but that they will never have time to savor the joys of children and a family life. Women are still asking, "Is this all there is?" But now it means, does work have to be all there is in life?

Many women with children are saying no, and are choosing to work part-time or not at all outside the home. Amazingly, more than 40 years after The Feminine Mystique was published, almost 25 percent of all American women with college degrees don 't even work for pay at all. They are full-time wives and mothers, 100 percent dependent on their husbands' income. And for these women, Friedan's words are still all too timely. I have spoken to audiences of women all over the country for the past several years, and believe me, the "strange stirring, sense of dissatisfaction, and yearning" that Friedan saw in women of the 1950s still haunts millions of women today. These are the women who find, 10 or 15 or more years after graduation, that all the old constraints and strictures have come down on them again, now that they have a husband and two kids. Were they educated and told they could be whatever they wanted to be, only to find themselves driving SUVs around all day?

Usually this new problem with no name is dismissed with "well, it was their choice." Women themselves accept the harsh, all or nothing trade-off between the 24/7 workplace and the abandonment of their hopes and dreams beyond motherhood. Full-time mothers and full-time working mothers alike have bought into the idea that any frustration or insecurity or exhaustion they might feel is their own personal problem or even their own fault, for after all, no one made them choose the life they're leading.

And this is where Friedan remains really relevant. She understood that if millions of people have a similar problem, it's not an individual, personal problem, it's a societal problem. And societal problems can only be fixed by people working together for change. This takes awareness; the realization that it's not just me. A realization that people like me didn't write the rules of the game by which I have to live; rules that don't offer me a real choice, but a real bad set of choices.

Today it's clear that the rigid, workaholic rules of the American workplace were not written by people who put a high priority on children or family life. Friedan came to see that as problematic, and in a later book, in the early 1980s, she called for a restructuring of work and family. She knew that winning legal equality was just the beginning, and that the goal was a diversity of equal gender roles, not a world in which women had to choose between the old-fashioned life of a traditional wife and mother or the old-fashioned life of a traditional male.

She took a lot of heat from feminists who thought legal equality was enough and the life of the traditional man was fine. Once, when I was working on my own book The Price of Motherhood, I told Friedan that I was trying to tackle the new dilemma. She growled at me in that fierce way of hers and said, "I tried that, and I got shot down."

I think she got shot down because it was still too early to call for even more radical reform. One revolution is enough for one lifetime. Her book had already awakened countless people to their latent power. The Feminine Mystique made women aware that their situation was not inexorable fate or a personal choice, but was wholly man-made, so to speak, and could be, by women, changed. If that's not a timely message for today, I don't know what is.

Ann Crittenden is the author of The Price of Motherhood and If You've Raised Kids You Can Manage Anything. She can be reached at

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