What prods our feminist foremothers into the light of reappraisal? The condition of women in the world is a changing state of affairs, except of course, depressingly, in all the ways it isn’t. Accordingly, the relevance of any departed feminist thinker to the present moment takes one of two forms. First, she’s to be resurrected because the injustice she once delineated has been substantially overcome; we can beatify her for having slain the dragon of this or that historical inequality. In other words, we find in her a sort of relevance of irrelevance.
Second, and conversely, her claim to our attention could be based on the persistence of some particular problem. Sexual violence? Unequal pay? Or, perhaps most urgently, the assault on reproductive rights? As last year’s Dobbs decision demonstrated, when it comes to justice, the arc of history sometimes bends right back on itself. “Relevance,” in this second realm of persistent problems, often proceeds from twinned, faulty assumptions: that the only reason a person might be induced to revisit feminist thought from the ’60s or ’70s is for the way it speaks directly and digestibly to the now; and that the point of the exercise is only to confirm, in impotent resignation, that little has changed, things remain terrible, and we need so-and-so “now more than ever”! In this way, things collapse into gynopessimism—which holds that nothing can really alter the fundamentally subordinate status of women.
These questions—why revive her in particular, and why now?—are especially acute when it comes to a new biography of a much-biographized figure. The activist and writer Betty Friedan—who remains famous for her 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, and is frequently described as the mother of second-wave feminism—is often discussed in terms of the first form of relevance. Friedan is canon; she must be kept classic. Her book established a vocabulary that allowed women to articulate their own dissatisfactions: Friedan was a midcentury, middle-class, married American mother of three children; these features of her life ought to have indicated her happiness, or, to use the clarion word tolling through The Feminine Mystique, her “fulfillment.” Instead, Friedan had been led down a dead end into well-appointed misery. This was “the problem that has no name” or had no name until indicted as the supposedly ennobling “mystique.”
Rachel Shteir’s new biography, Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter, draws its subtitle from a speech House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave in 2006, not long after Friedan’s death, lionizing her and a handful of other recently deceased figures as “magnificent disrupters.” “Disrupter” carries Silicon Valley associations of self-congratulatory CEOs; paired with “magnificent,” it seems to partake in the kind of heroine worship that stems from an awkward American truth: that it’s easier to put Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face on a pin than to dismantle the injustice of the Supreme Court as institution.
Shteir’s account does not seem particularly concerned with how enduring Friedan’s diagnosis remains. The author is more interested in her subject’s experiences and how they shaped her approach to the world, which is a particularly appropriate mode for Friedan: “Everything I know,” she once declared, “has come from my own experience.” Feminism must always navigate between the predicament of females as second-class citizens (in other words, their legal status) and the less definable but acutely felt experience of being oppressed not so much by laws as by norms, expectations, attitudes. The Feminine Mystique is more concerned with the latter. Women are more legally emancipated than in 1963. The question is how far short of true freedom emancipation still falls.
Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born in 1921, in Peoria, Illinois, the first child of Harry and Miriam. By the time they’d had another daughter and the main event of the longed-for son, Betty’s parents were beginning to find their eldest’s braininess worrisome. They learned, Shteir writes in her conscientiously researched book, “that to control Betty, they had to threaten to take away her books.” Her father forbade her from checking out volumes from the library because the sight of her shlepping a pile of them up the hill was “unladylike.” Such censure did its damage. Later, she’d write: “I was that girl with all the As and I wanted boys worse than anything.… With all that brilliance, I saw myself becoming the old maid college teacher.”
At a tender age, female intellectual achievement seemed to her incompatible with heterosexual love. It took time for Friedan to acquire the fundamental second-wave insight, that her experience was by no means shameful or anomalous, but instead a symptom of the organization of society. Meanwhile, there is a clear premonition of the radical woman author-to-be in the image of the scrappy schoolgirl who instigated “the ‘Baddy Baddy’ Club”—whose agitations included “a series of protests against a substitute teacher by dropping books on the floor and coughing en masse.” Young Friedan disrupted, in other words, unmagnificently. Later, this baddy baddy would find worthier subjects for organized protest.
Friedan rampaged through Marx and Freud at Smith College and excelled, not yet aware that the point of the institution, as it saw itself, was to prepare young women for breeding, not thinking. Upon her graduation summa cum laude with a major in psychology, a college administrator told her mother: “Betty has the most outstanding record of any student ever matriculated at Smith.” After graduation, she abandoned a prestigious psychology fellowship at Berkeley because she was in love (as she later recalled) with an intellectually inferior man who warned her, “You can take that fellowship, but you know I’ll never get one like it. You know what it will do to us…” The depression that followed this decision only dissipated after she began working as a labor journalist in New York. By the mid-1950s, mother to three small children, in a periodically violent (mostly him, sometimes her) marriage (to some other jerk, not the Berkeley guy), Friedan was working sporadically as a writer for women’s magazines. As such, she was less attuned to the capital-labor relation and more attuned to a different social problem, the male-female relation.
At a 15-year college reunion, she issued her classmates a questionnaire about their achievements and satisfactions, or lack thereof. The questions were arrestingly frank, the women’s answers even more so, hinting at an epidemic of malaise. Galvanized, Friedan began amassing accounts from the class of people to which she belonged, the one assumed to be the nation’s most contented: white, suburban, middle-class housewives. These accounts form the bedrock of The Feminine Mystique’s first and last chapters and helped, as futurist Alvin Toffler proclaimed upon the book’s publication, to pull “the trigger on history.”
Someone identified as “a Nebraska housewife with three children” who “has a Ph.D. in anthropology” provides the most painful account of domestic grind in the book. Her testimonial begins in a tone of striving ingratiation: “A film made of any typical morning in my house would look like an old Marx Brothers comedy.” She then runs us through her day’s harried, mindless tasks, admitting that none are “really necessary or important.” Even more than the content, it’s the false cheer and effortful wit (“by noon I’m ready for a padded cell”) that communicate the writer’s rare and desperate excitement at being tasked with something other than housework.
The “mystique” of Friedan’s famous title could do with some demystifying. It refers to the notion, both gauzy and entrenched, that woman is a special sort of being, precious and to be protected from the world, which is the preserve of men. The prime argument of the book, which encompasses social science, history, and psychology, is that when kept in the prison of this mystique—in the thwarted, infantilized state of mere helpmeet, living only through her husband and children—a woman cannot be fulfilled. “Fulfillment” is hard to quantify. So often in the book it seems like a euphemism for power. Were all the wage-laboring husbands slogging off to clock in and out at offices or factories fulfilled? The postwar United States was not exactly built in utopian service to half its population and the realization of their creative, spiritual, and intellectual potential either. Later, Friedan would acknowledge that, though men had more power, they were perhaps “as damaged by the iron mask of machismo as women were by the feminine mystique.” To broaden her aperture to analyze the economic conditions of gender relations would have made for a more nuanced book, but would perhaps have diluted the potency of her polemic.
The book’s purview doesn’t extend much beyond the lives of white, middle-class American women—her Smith classmates and people like them. Later, as founder and head of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, Friedan sought, energetically if imperfectly, to include Black and working-class women in the struggle for equality. In 1990, acknowledging the book’s demographic narrowness, Friedan explained that she did not include Black women because her editor advised her “she was already taking too much on.”
One question Shteir’s book provokes is by what metrics we might judge feminist gains. In 1998, reflecting on the paradigm of her 1963 bestseller, Friedan described the situation of women as “defined by her relationship to a man and children—wife, mother, housekeeper, sex object, server of needs, never a person defining herself by her own actions in society.” All of which now sounds mercifully quaint—if not yet extinct.
Still, we’re now a sufficient distance from the figure of the unhappy housewife for her to have become more fetish than fact. Her appearances in mainstream American fictions have enshrined her as Valium-popping, vacuuming kitsch: She is Betty Draper with her pearls and ennui, or, more recently, Florence Pugh with her sundress and existential dread. Indeed, these days, the word “housewives” is more often preceded by the world “real” and refers to a global television franchise worth billions, whose stars, confusingly, are mostly women with jobs. (“I view it as a great feminist tableau,” Real Housewives producer Andy Cohen told The New Yorker earlier this year. Which is his view, but this is anybody’s fact: “I’m in charge of the edit. The women of ‘Housewives’ are not in charge of their edit.”)
Attitudinal changes do not necessarily come in harmonious lockstep with more tangible gains. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1973’s “The Third World of Women,” “… liberation means power—or it hardly means anything at all,” and one concrete marker of power is law. Running through Shteir’s book are the travails of the Equal Rights Amendment, the prime legal battleground of Friedan’s life. Initially proposed in 1923, it sought to enshrine equality by ending legal distinctions between men and women in employment, divorce, and property. It had languished in Congress for nearly five decades when NOW, formed in 1966, took up the cause, lobbying elected officials for support and later making the case for ratification in writing and in the streets. The ERA’s archenemy was conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, at whom Friedan notoriously lost her cool in a 1973 debate. A decade later, Friedan characterized her readiness to anger “as a rejection of her mother’s assimilated politesse. ‘She was so unctuous on the telephone—“my dear sweet darling”—…the next thing she would say is “that bitch.” As a result, I virtually say “you bitch” on the phone.’” Friedan actually, not virtually, called Schlafly a “witch” in their televised contretemps, which Shteir characterizes as “the public battle of the mothers.”
Friedan’s use of “witch” pales in comparison with two of the prime gaffes of her career. They’ve ossified into phrases that make it easy to damn her. First are the words she used to describe the domestic prison American women found themselves in: “comfortable concentration camp.” Women aspiring merely to be housewives were “in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.” It doesn’t take a genius to point out that, between the death of selfhood entailed by a metaphorical prison and the nonmetaphorical deaths meted out by Nazis in real prisons, the former is preferable. Incidentally, Friedan’s analogy echoes one used on the eve of World War II. In 1938, Pearl S. Buck (who that same year became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature) wrote: “An intelligent, energetic, educated woman cannot be kept in four walls—even satin-lined, diamond-studded walls—without discovering sooner or later that they are still a prison cell.” The problem that had no name had already been named; it’s just the public wasn’t ready to hear it.
In 1969, four years before the American Psychological Association removed “homosexuality” from its list of mental illnesses, Friedan’s hostility toward lesbians who wanted to make their identity central to NOW prompted a second notorious utterance—“the lavender menace.” In a subsequent effort to politically (if not morally) justify this, she told Simone de Beauvoir: “The attempt to make political ideology out of sexual preference, out of lesbianism, has diverted energies from the political mainstream and hindered the political momentum of the women’s movement.” De Beauvoir (here, you can almost see a cocked, Gallic eyebrow) counters, “Well of that I’m not so sure.” There followed (as memorialized in Friedan’s It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement) a prickly if polite conversation between two women struggling not to find each other strange creatures.
Ostensibly, the big bad daddy of The Feminine Mystique is Freud—whom Friedan takes to task for his “sexual solipsism,” that is to say, the way in which he draws supposedly universal sexual truths from his own, circumscribed impressions. Friedan disdained his notion of “penis envy,” the idea that little girls, upon discovering their lack of dangling genitals, feel themselves “castrated.” Behavior that he believed to be biological was, as Friedan observes, “often a cultural reaction”—in other words, “one sees simply that Victorian culture gave women many reasons to envy men.” It was, however, mommies, not daddies, who most exercised Friedan. Were it not for her difficult relationship with Miriam, Friedan believed she may not have written her revolutionary book; as a young woman, she was “determined [to] find the feminine fulfillment which had eluded my mother.”
Fraught mother-daughter relationships are hardly unique to any one historical moment, but Friedan junior had come of age at a time of energetic Mommy-blaming. In 1943, Philip Wylie published the hysterical Generation of Vipers, decrying the destroying mothers who’d plunged his once great nation into a matriarchy in which “the women of America raped the men.” But even beyond these sorts of libidinally misogynistic excesses, “mother” was a dirty word. Friedan was ambivalent, if not downright grumpy, about being called the “mother” of the movement. “Sometimes,” she grouses in 1976’s It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, “I feel like a mother with a million children all crying ‘help!’” Parsing the matrophobia that simmers through The Feminine Mystique, Shteir writes: “Although [Friedan] never says so, this impulse toward matricide might have been more acute among Jewish women.” An extraordinary statement! On which the author does not elaborate.
What an attitudinal shift we’ve gone through. I like to envision what Friedan might have made of the term “mother” as reimagined via queer culture and now used predominantly of cis-het white women who exude self-possession and hauteur. Cate Blanchett is Mother, Sarah Michelle Gellar is Mother, Toni Collette is Mother. Now, it seems less like we want to kill mommy than have her dom us.
As for actual mothers, a miasma of sentimentality blurs a clutch of shameful American truths. Consider the appallingly high maternal mortality rate of Black women, or the crippling cost of childcare, or the sexism of a medical establishment in which postnatal depression, for example, is under-researched and routinely dismissed. Barbie, which will fix none of this and shouldn’t have to, is a movie I’ve now seen twice. The line that elicited the loudest sniffles in the dark each time is also the only line I hated: “We mothers stand still,” murmurs a misty Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), creator of the doll, “so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.” Which smacks of precisely the kind of sentimentalizing “feminine” abnegation that Friedan and her successors have so righteously crusaded against.
What about a world in which none of us have to stand still? “When their mothers’ fulfillment makes girls sure they want to be women...,” Friedan prophesies on the penultimate page of The Feminine Mystique, “they can stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are.” Which prompts one more question—what about a world in which noting how far we’ve come is one way of seeing how far we have to go?