What Betty Friedan Did and Didn’t Do

Dear Kimberly,

You and I are so much on the same wave length and such good friends that I can’t recall our ever disagreeing, even though we’ve discussed innumerable topics by phone, letter, email, in person, and on this blog.  But this time I’m going to take issue with your Feb. 28 post.  I felt your critique was a bit too hard on Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique.

When Friedan was writing

As you know, Kim, we’ve often talked on this blog about the time period in which Friedan was writing (as in, for example, my Sept. 8, 2008 and Sept. 19, 2008 posts)—a time that is very real to me because I lived it. I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate what Betty Friedan was trying to do in her book without taking into consideration the gender expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.

To criticize her for not addressing the broader interrelated concerns of other social inequities and economic injustices isn’t really fair; it pulls her book out of the context in which it was written, including the audience to whom it was addressed.

Why the book doesn’t speak to you today

At the same time, I really do understand why it no longer speaks to you as a Third Wave feminist in the 21st century.

First, because it wasn’t written for the world your generation is encountering but rather for an important segment of my Second Wave feminist world, which is where it had its greatest impact.

And second because you are constantly learning, growing, and stretching your mind—as a Christian, as a feminist, and as an all-around brilliant, gifted young woman.  You have simply outgrown the book, my friend, and you have learned so much more since you read it just a few years ago (which was around the time we started this blog in 2008).  So much has changed in your life since then, including these past two years of studying at Yale Divinity School.   Understandably, you find that much of the book is dated, and certain particulars are inapplicable to our world today—or, more specifically, simply don’t go far enough.

This is a perennial problem for authors in a rapidly changing world—even after a book has had a major impact and helped catalyze changes at a particular time.  As you know from reading the serialized story I’ve been writing about Nancy Hardesty’s and my coauthoring our 1974 book, All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation, we did not stop at one editionWe revised our book twice to incorporate some of the later biblical and theological scholarship, social science research, feminist theory, gender studies, and current concerns at the time each of the three editions was written. The third edition (1992) was extensively revised, expanded, and updated.

Times change, circumstances change, and we as people change.  But, of course, books can’t keep being revised for ever.  We need new books to be written.  And I hope you’ll be writing some of them, Kimberly.

The audience

It’s also important to be aware of Friedan’s audience at the time she was writing.  Yes, it’s true; she was for the most part addressing middle-class women— the actual or aspiring “Betty Drapers” of the 1960s United States suburbs, perhaps married to men like those depicted in the Mad Men television series.  These were women who were told by the culture of the times that they were living a fairy-tale “happily ever after” life—even though so many of them felt strangely empty inside.  Each woman who experienced the “problem that has no name”—as Friedan called it—blamed herself and wondered what was wrong with her.  Why wasn’t she happy?  Why did she feel such discontent?  What more could she desire?  Didn’t she have a husband who loved and provided for her and the children? Didn’t she live in the house of her dreams?  Didn’t she own the latest appliances?  What more could she possibly want?  The very fact that she wanted something more (more of what? she wondered) made her feel guilty, ungrateful, selfish.

A problem deeper than socioeconomic class

Kim, I know you think that Betty Friedan wasn’t aware of her class privilege, but I don’t think that’s entirely true.  When you spoke of her addressing women whose lives were filled with “matching slipcovers, cooking gourmet snails, and building swimming pools,” it came across as though you thought that’s what the women themselves desired for their lives. They could then be so easily caricatured as spoiled, ungrateful, bored and restless women who didn’t appreciate what they had, when so many other women had so little.

But what we must keep in mind in reading that first page of the Feminine Mystique is that the life described was not necessarily what the women in Friedan’s audiencewanted.  Rather, it was the message that those who were considered the experts were telling the women that they should want.  And many women following such advice found themselves feeling empty inside.

(I’m reminded of a line in an Ingmar Bergman film of the early 1970s, where Marianne, some time after a divorce, writes in her journal that she was surprised to realize she didn’t know who she was, that she had always done what people told her, always tried to be agreeable.  “I have never thought: What do I want?  But always: What does hewant me to want? It’s not unselfishness as I used to think, but sheer cowardice, and what’s worse—utter ignorance of who I am.” (From “Scenes from a Marriage,” in Ingmar Bergman, The Marriage Scenarios, Pantheon Books, 1974, English Translation by Alan Blair, pp.122-23.)

At the time that Betty Friedan wrote, the popular culture of the times was stressing that each woman was supposed to glory in a certain image of femininity (as the experts defined that term). Fulfilling that image was considered a natural part of having been born female.  She was expected to want what others “wanted her to want,” namely, to fulfill her destiny as a wife and mother—a destiny that was far more than a role (one that was parallel to the role of husband and father as only one part of life) but as the driving force comprising the whole of her life.  And she was given instructions about how to live out that destiny. In a consumption-driven society, advertisers especially delighted in telling her what they “wanted her to want.”

I think of the lines from the movie Marty when bachelor Marty, who lives with his mother, brings a young woman home to meet his widowed mother.  Suddenly, the mother is struck by the thought that Marty might marry and leave her alone with nothing to do but wait to die.  “Your children grow up and then, what is left for you to do? What is a mother’s life but her children?” she says.  She feels it is essential for a woman to have a house to clean and a family to cook for. What is there when that is gone?  “These are the terrible years for a mother,” she says.

Wanting something more

Women who wanted something more were considered neurotic and destined for unhappiness.  The women’s magazines  were filled with advice about how to go about living out a certain image of womanhood—what Friedan termed the “feminine mystique”—day  by day.

Friedan had worked for these magazines and knew well the audience they were reaching. In the 1985 introduction to her collection of writings titled, It Changed My Life, Friedan explains both her purpose and her intended readership.  “I started to writeThe Feminine Mystique because the very assumptions of the articles I was then writing for women’s magazines no longer rang true to me—though I, as other women in America, was living my life according to these assumptions” (p.xx).

Religious institutions reinforced these ideas about womanhood by insisting this was “God’s will.”  Physical and mental health professionals in large part bolstered these ideas by telling women that the emptiness they felt while trying to conform to societal expectations could be alleviated by accepting—and yielding to—the prevailing “feminine mystique” and not resisting it.

In other words, just wanting to be human was considered to be a rebellious act against this mystical quality supposedly endowed by nature that automatically made women’s yearnings for learning and achievement different from those of men.  It was that limited construct, that image of what girls and women were expected to be and think and do, that Friedan had in mind in speaking of a “feminine mystique.”

Human personhood and dignity

At its root, the problem being addressed was far greater than whether or not a particular woman had a choice about working outside the home or being a full-time homemaker supported by a husband whose single income was sufficient to provide such support.  I think Friedan’s far deeper point had to do with the core of a woman’s being as a human being.

You and I have talked about this again and again, Kim.  And so have others over time.  In 1790, under the penname “Constantia,” Judith Murray wrote an essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” for Massachusetts Magazine in which she challenged prevailing attitudes.

Should it still be vociferated, “Your domestick employments are sufficient”—I would calmly ask, is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing of the seams of a garment?  Pity that all such censurers of female improvement do not go one step further, and deny their future existence; to be consistent they surely ought.  (As quoted in Aileen S. Kraditor, ed., Up from the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism. Quadrangle Books, paperback edition, 1970, p. 34.)

In the 19th century, Lucy Stone expressed similar thoughts about what women were told was to be their extremely limited role in life. She, too, argued that conformity to that image contradicted a woman’s humanness as it was intended by the Creator.

I know not what you believe of God, but I believe He gave yearnings and longings to be filled, and that He did not mean all our time should be devoted to feeding and clothing the body. (From Stone’s extemporaneous speech at the 1855 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Cincinnati. Quoted in Kraditor, p. 73.)

Underlying all such arguments that countered prevailing gender norms was the key ideathat persons born female were born to be fully autonomous human beings no less than were men and should be so recognized and respected. This whole issue has to do with human personhood and dignity.

The former slave, Sojourner Truth, was making that same point (and, indirectly, many other points as well) in her powerful “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851.

Regardless of which version of that speech is the more historically accurate, its intent was clear.  If what the clergyman, who had stood up in the meeting, had said about women were true—that women were delicate, fragile beings that needed help climbing into and out of carriages and must be given a high place on a pedestal just by virtue of being female, then what about her?  How could sheSojourner Truth, be explained?  Wasn’t she a woman?  Surely that was proven by her having given birth to many children.  But no one helped her in and out of carriages.

She held up her muscular arm and declared that she had done all types of hard heavy physical labor expected of men and that no man could have done it better or shown greater strength and ability.

And she had been required to do such work while regarded as the property of a slaveholder who had sold her children into slavery as well.  She had borne the lashes of a whip.  She had experienced oppression doubly—even triply—on the basis of her gender, her race, and her social class (no class could be lower than a slave who was considered property!). Nothing fragile or delicate about her!  Her experience put to rest the idea that by nature a woman was to be identified in a certain way and should be expected to act in conformity to that delicate “feminine” way.

The women at the conference reportedly cheered her on.  The movement for women’s rights had, after all, grown out of the abolition movement.  Abolishing slavery, abolishing discrimination against women—the two were interrelated.  And Sojourner Truth’s personal experience of womanhood, coupled with her experience as an enslaved black person, demonstrated the issue of intersectionality long before the concept was recognized or the word used.  And at the core of it all was the matter of human dignity.

But, of course, no one likely saw it in quite that “intersectional”way at the time.  And later, we even see some of those working for women’s suffrage actually distancing themselves from African Americans and their rights rather than risk alienating whites who might aid in winning the vote for women if the movement were kept “pure” and separate from black rights.

Kimberly, I know this is where much of your criticism of Friedan’s book comes in.

What Betty Friedan didn’t do

It’s true that Friedan in 1963 did not provide a critique of so many other social inequities she could have discussed, nor did she specifically address issues of race and class.  And you were understandably disturbed that she seemed to suggest that by using the all-encompassing word women, she seemed to think she was speaking to and for all women rather than just addressing the white, educated, privileged middle-class women whom the book seemed to hold up as the norm.

Your criticism is well taken, Kim.  As Stephanie Coontz points out in her insightful analysis of Friedan’s work from the vantage point of nearly half a century after its publication, such judgments were already being voiced by some readers even at the time of publication (Coontz, A Strange Stirring, 2011, p. 105).  One of the first was Gerda Lerner, who herself would later  shed new  light on women’s history through her own noteworthy scholarship and writings.  Shortly after Friedan’s book was published, Lerner wrote a personal letter to Friedan, praising the book for what it did do, while at the same time calling into question what it did not do.  She said her one reservation about how Friedan addressed the subject was its attention solely to college-educated, middle-class women while ignoring less privileged women, especially black women, who were disadvantaged not only by the feminine mystique but by the economic opportunity system as well.  Lerner pointed out that the same mistake was made in the suffrage movement and, in her opinion, hindered the advancement of women which needs the work of women from all demographics.

At the same time, perhaps we should not read too much into Friedan’s narrower focus.  It does not necessarily mean she was unconcerned about these larger social inequities.  She may simply have made an editorial decision to use this particular book to reach the audience she had addressed during her days of writing for women’s magazines, while also being aware that the book couldn’t cover all that it could have covered.  Coontz writes that “in early drafts of The Feminine Mystique, she drew parallels between the prejudices against those of women and those against African Americans and Jews” (p.104).

Friedan and Minorities

Friedan also worked with African American activists such as Dorothy Height, whom  we’ve discussed (including links) on this blog before. Height believed in forging coalitions and saw women’s causes as encompassing both African American and white women, saying they had much in common.  Thus, Betty Friedan, along with Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem, helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, a mentioned in most obituaries when Dorothy Height died last year.  (See herehere, and here.)

Friedan was especially a product of her time in regard to homosexuality, as various statements in her book illustrate. I, as someone who has written books and spoken a great deal about acceptance, inclusiveness, and respect for LGBTQ persons, of course found it troubling to read of her unwelcoming attitude toward lesbians as part of the women’s movement—particularly in the early days of the National Organization for Women (NOW).  However, Betty Friedan did change her attitude later.

In reading homophobic statements in The Feminine Mystique, such as Friedan’s reference to “the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky fog over the American scene,” it’s important that we keep in mind the way homosexuality was regarded in the 1960s.

I don’t know whether or not you had a chance to watch the PBS American Experiencepresentation of “The Stonewall Uprising” recently, but it’s very revealing in terms of today’s changing attitudes toward LGBTQ people as compared to the times in which Friedan was writing.  The PBS program included actual clips from documentary-type films of the 1960s, among them the 1967 CBS Reports special program titled “The Homosexuals,” which painted an especially scary picture of homosexual persons, pointing out how the law, mental health professionals, and religion at that time were united in viewing gay men and lesbians as unspeakably evil or sick.

(You can view the PBS “Stonewall Uprising” program online. Most of the clips from 1960s films that were intended to educate the public on the supposed dangers of homosexuality are featured in the first 20 minutes.)  Since most gay and lesbian people were of necessity remaining closeted at the time, the American people for the most part were not knowingly acquainted with gay and lesbian persons—so they either thought little about the topic or else believed what the media and religious institutions were telling them.  It’s important to keep that in mind in reading some of Friedan’s statements on the topic. It does not excuse them, but it explains them.

What Friedan accomplished

But rather than thinking about what Friedan didn’t do, we need to appreciate what shedid do.  She tapped into something that was bothering a considerable number of women in the 1950s,1960s, and into the1970s, causing them to experience intense self doubt, lowered self-esteem, and a sense of emptiness and discontent, feelings that they could neither explain nor name but that made them feel alone and left them wondering if something were wrong with them.

By describing and naming that empty feeling—even naming it as the “problem that had no name” (though its characteristics were readily recognizable)—Betty Friedan was able to show these women they were not alone.  She could help them realize that this nameless problem stemmed from a mythical and mystical view of women that denied women their full personhood and potential, a constellation of expectations that she termed the “feminine mystique.”  And she introduced many women to some facts and aspects of women’s history that many had never heard before.

It was an “aha” moment for countless women—women who saw they could give themselves permission to have independent interests beyond homemaking and childcare, as important as these responsibilities were.  And it empowered women to believe they could complete or increase their education, find new outlets for their talents, realize their right to be complete human beings, and see themselves in a new light.

Some insights from Stephanie Coontz in A Strange Stirring

Stephanie Coontz was able to see this tremendous impact of the book as she recently surveyed 188 women and men, later conducting interviews with some of them as well.  They and countless others can recall how The Feminine Mystique affected them when they read it more than 45 years ago.  It was a book written for its time—not ahead of it, and it accomplished its major mission.  As Coontz wrote:

It in no way disparages Friedan’s accomplishments to point out that The Feminine Mystique was not ahead of its time.  Books don’t become best sellers because they are ahead of their time. They become best sellers when they tap into concerns that people are already mulling over, pull together ideas and data that have not yet spread beyond specialists and experts, and bring these all together in a way that is easy to understand and explain to others.  (Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Basic Books, 2011, p. 145.)

Coontz shows how Friedan achieved all this.  (That paragraph is also a good way to think about successful non-fiction writing.)

I highly recommend Coontz’s book, Kimberly.  Maybe you’ll have some time to read it this summer with your coursework out of the way.  She shares some remarkable stories about women, as well as some men, who read the book around the time of its publication. And she sets the stage by opening her book with a detailed description of the enormous legal and societal obstacles women had to face at the time Friedan wrote, which explains why The Feminine Mystique was such a welcome relief and sign of hope for so many.

But Coontz also is totally in tune with your response as a Third Wave feminist.  She said her  students reacted similarly after she had assigned the book for a college class. They saw it as outdated and unrelated to their concerns in today’s world—except for one chapter, Friedan’s chapter titled, “The Sexual Sell.”   Coontz said her students really resonated with the message of that chapter. “Almost all testified to the pressures they felt not only to buy consumer goods but to present themselves as objects to be consumed” (A Strange Stirring, p. 177).  Did that chapter in Friedan’s book stand out for you, too?

Your thoughts?

I’ll look forward to hearing any further thoughts you might have on all this, Kim.  I’m thinking about you a lot at this exciting time as you look forward to your graduation this month with a Master’s degree from Yale Divinity School.  I’m tremendously proud of you and happy for you!  You’ve accomplished so much!

I also want to apologize to our readers for my long delay in replying to your last post, which has thrown the 72-27 blog off the monthly schedule we were trying to keep.  As you, Kimberly, and many of our readers already know, my coauthor of All We’re Meant to Be, Nancy Hardesty, died last month.  As the cancer metastasized and her condition worsened quite rapidly the last couple of months, I had been putting much of my writing time into trying to finish writing the backstory of our coauthorship of the book while she was still with us. Nancy and I started writing our book only six years after Betty Friedan wrote hers, so some of the readers of 72-27 might wish to read that backstory, too (including some of Nancy’s and my correspondence and photos from those times).  The backstory, “Coauthoring All We’re Meant to Be,” is told in serial form on my “Letha’s Calling” blog that is part of my personal website.

That’s all for this time.  Again, heartiest congratulations on your graduation, Kim!

In loving friendship,
Letha

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