Think Again: Remembering <i>The Feminine Mystique</i>

Few works in all of American history have enjoyed a greater impact, whether measured in political, cultural, or psychological terms, than Friedan's combination historical novel, manifesto, and cri de coeur.
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The Center for American Progress is hosting a forum today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. The forum participants include CAP President Neera Tanden, current New York Times pundit Gail Collins, former New York Times pundit Anna Quindlen, and CAP Senior Fellow Judith Warner. As the event description notes, when The Feminine Mystique was originally published in 1963, "[m]arried women in some states couldn't sit on juries, get a job without their husband's permission, or keep control of their property and earnings."

One telling historical note from the same year that has always impressed me -- and my students when I recount it -- involved the marriage of Katharine Meyer to the journalist Philip Graham. Meyer's father, Eugene, owned The Washington Post Company, where his daughter and his new son-in-law both worked. On the occasion of their marriage, Eugene Meyer simply handed over ownership of the family's flagship newspaper to Mr. Graham. Mrs. Graham noted in her autobiography, titled Personal History, that, "Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper."

As it happened, Mr. Graham suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, and before committing suicide, he sought to divorce his wife for a much younger woman with whom he had conducted a quite open affair around Washington. Had the divorce gone through, Mrs. Graham would likely have lost not only her family's newspaper but also her livelihood, to say nothing of the incredible career she eventually forged after becoming publisher of the Post and president of its parent company in 1963 upon Mr. Graham's suicide -- all because her father did not think a man should have to work for his wife. Suffice it to say that after the publication of The Feminine Mystique that year, fewer and fewer people -- both men and women -- were thinking that way anymore.

Few works in all of American history have enjoyed a greater impact, whether measured in political, cultural, or psychological terms, than Friedan's combination historical novel, manifesto, and cri de coeur. Born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois, in 1921, she was raised by immigrant Jewish parents. From an early age, she drifted toward journalism, starting a literary magazine that was too controversial and thus went unpublished in her high school. She then set out for Smith College -- the famed New England women's school -- in 1939, where she took a class with the wife of future Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Il), Dorothy Wolff Douglas, who opened her mind to the problem of female oppression. Goldstein planned to continue her studies at the University of California, where she had won a fellowship, but she felt compelled to turn it down when her success made her then-boyfriend nervous.

As a one-time supporter of former Vice President Henry Wallace, Goldstein gravitated toward Marxism and landed a job as a left-wing labor journalist. But after getting married and becoming "Betty Friedan," she quit her job and attempted to settle down into a life of peaceful suburban domesticity. Deeply unhappy, she got back in touch with a number of her college classmates from Smith and discovered she was not alone in her feelings of dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment. So Friedan set out to name the disease ailing her and her friends. The result was The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. It was a "spirited intervention in a particular time and place," as the prominent historian of feminism Christine Stansell aptly noted -- it was "a flag planted by an outrider on a battlefield where armies were starting to assemble."

Friedan's book was originally published during a four-month newspaper strike in New York City and, as a result, made its way into the world without much advertising or book reviews. The editors of both McCall's and Ladies' Home Journal were fortunately willing to step away from their usual domestic fare and offer excerpts of the book to their combined readership of 36 million. The book's publisher, W.W. Norton, arranged for a book tour -- which was unheard of then for an unknown author -- and soon enough, the first paperback printing sold 1.4 million copies. Friedan immediately began receiving letters that read, "I feel, today, as though I had been filled with helium and turned loose," and "Like light bulbs going off again and again," and "I understood what I was feeling and felt validated!!" And a movement was born.

The book began with Friedan attempting to describe her "sense of dissatisfaction" that sprung from a question asked by a housewife: "Is this all?" The "problem that has no name," as her first chapter was entitled, centered around this vague sense of unhappiness that Friedan had discovered in interviewing numerous women from Smith and elsewhere. "I just don't feel alive," one woman told her. Friedan noted the pressure on women to return to domesticity after World War II, believing it was exerted through magazines and popular culture. She made clear that the problem went beyond material concerns into a terrain of life that was more psychic and spiritual. "Our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings," she wrote, drawing upon the teachings of the psychologist Erik Erikson, whose classes she took at the University of California.

This sensible argument, though, turned sour toward the end of the book, where she rather crazily compared the life of a postwar suburban American housewife to that of an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp.

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