Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Betty Friedan


In 1957, on the 15th anniversary of her graduation from Smith College, she began to interview the women attending her reunion. Out of those interviews came “The Feminine Mystique.” It sold three million copies and convinced many women they were not alone suffocating in their suburban homes with a “growing sense of dissatisfaction.”

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women,” Ms. Friedan wrote. “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”

“Vacuuming the living room floor — with or without makeup — is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity,” Ms. Friedan wrote.

Yet the book almost immediately received criticism. At least one reviewer thought it was derivative of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” which had been published in English a decade earlier. It was criticized for its homophobic language and its comparisons between housewives and concentration camp victims. But perhaps the most widespread critique was that Ms. Friedan had pretty much omitted Black and working-class women from her manifesto. Working-class women, she wrote, were too busy working in factories to start the revolution, which is why it fell to the women of the middle class to “smash that empty image.”

The book “does read as if white, middle-class housewives’ lives are the lives of every American woman,” Ms. Plant said.

In a 1963 letter to Ms. Friedan, the historian Gerda Lerner applauded the book but also wrote, “Working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique, but under the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination.” There is no record of Ms. Friedan’s reply, at least none has been found.

Nearly six decades on, the book still resonates, but so does that critique.

The book may still be considered a “blueprint for young feminists,” said Ms. Nunes, of NOW, but Jennifer Baumgartner, who co-wrote the 2000 “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future,” said that Ms. Friedan’s book, which has “been labeled as retrograde” by scholars and activists, needs to be re-examined, especially in light of women’s backsliding because of the pandemic.



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Jonny Richards

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