Looking Into the Mystique of Betty Friedan

by Allison McLellan

“I never set out to write a book to change women’s lives, to change history. It’s like, ‘Who, me?’ Yes, me. I did it. And I’m not that different from other women.… Maybe my power and glory was that I could speak my truth as a woman and it was the truth of every woman.” – Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, 1960. (Photo/Fred Palumbo/ World Telegram|Creative Commons)
Betty Friedan, 1960. (Photo/Fred Palumbo/ World Telegram|Creative Commons)

A woman remembered as a pioneer of the women’s rights movement, Betty Friedan had always been an active writer. Born February 4, 1921, she worked as editor on both her high school and college newspapers, graduating summa cum laude from Smith College in 1942. Rejecting a fellowship to study psychology as the University of California, Friedan moved to New York to work as a reporter. After marrying in 1947, the well-educated woman lost her job when she became pregnant with her second child. While taking care of her children at home, she helped support her family with freelance writing for women’s magazines.

However, this lifestyle change left the young journalist restless in her role as a homemaker; she wondered if women in similar positions felt the same. After surveying other Smith College graduates, Friedan’s findings to that question led to her 1963 publication of her bestseller, The Feminine Mystique. Her book encouraged women to seek fulfillment outside of such traditional roles. The author continued spearheading the second wave of the feminist movement by co-founding the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, serving as the first president. She continued her endeavors in 1969 by establishing the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) to fight for women’s reproductive rights. In order to give women more influence in the political process, she then assisted in the creation of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) in 1971 with leading feminists Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug.

Through the years, Friedan added to her feminist literature with her more moderately written book, The Second Stage, about balancing the demands between work and home. In 1993, she published The Fountain of Age to discuss the older stages of a woman’s life.

The legacy of Friedan’s book can be seen in modern times: feminism is rising in a new wave of embracing individual freedoms, bringing issues that Friedan faced in her own time to the forefront of the movement, including equal pay, reproductive rights, and paid family leave.

But such an influential novel must be read critically in order for the impact to be fully understood. Over the years, Friedan’s viewpoint has come under fire from multiple authors, including feminist black theorist bell hooks. In 1984, hooks produced her own book, From Margin to Center. This work condemned Friedan for her focus on problems only affecting certain groups. She explains:

“Friedan’s famous phrase, “the problem that has no name,” often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women—housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women.”1

Friedan’s life experience was not universal; her struggles were the result of the privileges a well-educated woman with too much leisure time had. With one chapter actually going so far as to compare a homemaker’s isolation to a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, her book served as an incendiary tool to relate with women capable of turning their leisure time into promoting change. While her words rallied many to push for progress, she did not address the plights of women from different races and classes, arguably the groups most susceptible to sexist oppression.

Despite the problems with The Feminine Mystique, one cannot challenge the force Friedan’s novel was for the women’s movement of the twentieth century. Her book also demonstrates the impact literature can have in inspiring and mobilizing people. Betty Friedan passed away in 2006 in Washington, D.C., but the three organizations she helped found continue her efforts for women today.

End Notes

  1. bell hooks quote pulled from: Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems with ‘The Feminine Mystique.’” The Atlantic. Feb. 12, 2013.

Allison McLellan is a senior studying English with a minor in Communication and concentration in creative writing at the University of Connecticut. She is on the poetry panel for the Long River Review and currently works as the written communications assistant for the Materials Science and Engineering Department.

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