“I just don’t feel alive.” “I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete.” “I feel as if I don’t exist.”
Such phrases, uttered by 1950s housewives, fill the pages of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, released fifty years ago last month. The book famously launched the second wave of feminism and changed the landscape of the American household.
Since 1963, it has sold over three million copies. Reprints are always in demand, and the book lands somewhere on most big-name college syllabi. Beyond its impact on those who have read it, though, the book’s message has seeped into society’s subconscious.
Friedan’s thesis was simple then, and it’s simple now: Personal fulfillment requires pursuits outside the home—usually in the form of a career. Without a career outside the home, housewives lack self-actualization. Hence she described the busy homemaker: “chained to these pursuits, she is stunted at a lower level of living, blocked from the realization of her higher human needs.”
This is not a screed against brassieres, men, or subpar female athletic programs. Many of the women Friedan interviewed were well-educated, yet—often by their own choice—out of the professional workforce.
The feminine mystique, as Friedan explained it, is the unnatural expectation placed on middle-class women to make marriage, children, and the maintenance of a home their only goal. Friedan argued that the life of the housewife was falsely presented as the epitome of femininity: “The new mystique makes the housewife-mothers, who never had a chance to be anything else, the model for all women; it presupposes that history has reached a final and glorious end in the here and now, as far as women are concerned.”
The unrest described by Friedan’s interviewees isn’t anything truly alarming. They didn’t suffer from grave illnesses or sudden deaths, nor were they legally oppressed. The problem was a much more subtle form of oppression maintained by the 1950s culture.
How was this feminine mystique maintained? Friedan cited the pressure of families, communities, educators, and especially the images in magazines and television commercials. The commercial culture occupied a prime spot in the living room. By 1960, Americans were watching five hours of television a day. Commercials made money on the image of the happy wife pushing the right vacuum.
And the facts of the era support Friedan’s vision of the world. In the 1950s, 75 percent of all women were married by age twenty-four. If they did have a job, it wasn’t a job that led to a long-term career. During that decade, women aged sixteen to twenty-four represented the highest female participation in the labor force, at 43 percent. The majority of the white middle classes joined the flight to the suburbs after World War II and stayed there, running the suburban life with its Cub Scouts and PTA meetings.
If there was a consensus in the 1950s that a woman’s place was in the home, that consensus ended quickly. Today 70.6 percent of all mothers are in the workforce. We live in a society where the majority of households run on the two-working-parent model.
This has completely transformed how Americans marry and have kids. In the 1950s, not only were 75 percent of all women married by twenty-four, but 47 percent of them were married by nineteen. Contrast that with today’s statistics: American women are—on average—married at twenty-seven. After World War II, in the 1950s, the United States peaked at a 3.8 fertility rate. Today, our fertility rate is 1.9, a fifth of a point below replacement level.
The changes have affected education and the workforce. According to Christina Hoff Sommers, women account for nearly 60 percent of associate's, bachelor's, and master’s degrees. They also have surpassed men in PhD programs.
While many changes—such as advanced education and technology—played a part, Friedan’s classic was undoubtedly a catalyst that altered how society saw the role of women. There is a reason the New York Times Book Review claims that the book “changed the world so comprehensively that it’s hard to remember how much change was called for.”
Yet while Friedan’s impact is undeniable, her thesis has many faults.
Though Friedan wrote about housewives blocked from the personal fulfillment of a career, she herself was like many working mothers today. After her graduation from Smith, she worked as a left-wing journalist. She took time off to live in the suburbs and have three children, and then promptly returned to work after a few years.
Friedan’s manifesto was limited in its scope. The majority of her research relied on two polls, the first from 200 women graduates of her alma mater. The other poll, though larger (ten thousand Mount Holyoke graduates) did not ask questions that narrowed down why—or whether—many housewives were unhappy. Then, as she began to write and publish articles on the topic, many of her interviews were with women who already identified with her theory. At the very least, the book failed to meet sociological standards.
In every decade since 1963, others have tried to describe the experiences of women Friedan left out. Friedan ignored, for example, the issues affecting African American women, despite the ongoing civil rights movement in her day. Other feminists have written treatises complaining that Friedan overlooked the difficulties of lesbians.
Some critics point out that while Friedan highlighted the hardships of upper- and middle-class women, she ignored the plight of those not already financially blessed. Even today, according to the Working Mother Research Institute, “71 percent of mothers equate work with something done only to pick up a paycheck”—not the personal realization trumpeted by Friedan. Her formula is for elites only: She wrote that women “who take a job at twenty or forty to ‘help out at home’…are walking, almost as surely as the ones who stay inside the household trap, to a nonexistent future.”
A One-Size-Fits-All Solution
While many of these gaps are indeed defects in a book that explains feminine fulfillment, the greatest flaw in Friedan’s work is that her cure was too extreme, even if she diagnosed a problem in the 1950s postwar economic boom.
The ultimate issue isn’t Friedan’s description of 1950s barriers in the workplace or pressures to remain at home. In her quest to name the problem that has no name, Betty Friedan got it wrong: She asserted that personal feminine fulfillment required “lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession” in order to be fully human.
For all her talk about freedom, Friedan ultimately wants women to lead lives according to her own preference. Friedan attests that all housewives feel the burden of the feminine mystique. Throughout the book, Friedan condescendingly writes passages like: “for the housewife, the world is indeed rushing past her door while she just sits and watches.”
Friedan’s solution is that every housewife must make room in her life to pursue this lifelong commitment. She maintains that housewives are locked in “comfortable concentration camps.” How could this assertion not undermine the decisions and lives of stay-at-home moms today?
This thesis is still popular. As Stephanie Coontz recently reflected in the New York Times, “gender equality has stalled.” Why? “In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.” By using this statistic as proof of a “stall,” Coontz makes one choice better than the other. She makes judgments about the decisions of women she has never met—and certainly never understood.
The term “mommy wars” exists because women stake out positions for or against Friedan’s thesis. And they lose respect for women who choose differently. Moms who work can look down on moms who stay home—recall Hilary Rosen’s accusation that Ann Romney has “never worked a day in her life.” But the wars are waged in the other direction as well. Fifty-one percent of working mothers feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children.
The two extremes are just that—extremes. No one wants to return to the 1950s as Friedan characterized it, where women felt blocked from pursuing interests outside the home. Any conservative worth his or her salt would reject a one-housewife-size-fits-all mold.
But the other universal claim is equally untrue. The stay-at-home mother is not made into a “walking corpse.” To insist that her own decisions make her trapped, desperate, and unhappy is naïve, insulting, and even damaging to the roots of society.
A balance must be struck that values the variety of choices women make. Any feminism that refuses this is not feminism at all—just another form of oppression.
Feminism and the Workplace
Part of this balance can and should include changes in the workplace that make it more hospitable for the women who want to be there. Many workplaces still run on the husband-provider, female-permanent-homemaker model, even though only a fraction of families choose that option.
Modern women often want different life/family balances than men. In a 2009 Pew Research report, 79 percent of men wanted to work full-time, compared to 37 percent of women. Sixty-two percent of mothers reported that they preferred part-time work. If nothing else, this Pew poll signals that men and women wants to shape their careers differently. Men and women aren’t on one-track models any more.
So what changes should workplaces pursue? Advances in modern technology will continue to play a major role in the flexibility workers need. The internet, inexpensive computers, and remote work capabilities have already created a variety of adaptable work schedules and work-from-home options. Sixty years ago, it might not have been possible for Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg to leave work at 5:30 pm and then start up again—from her home computer—at 9 pm.
The future of workers—both mothers and fathers—will also hinge on increased child-care options, extended maternity leaves, and flex-time options that allow parents to shape their jobs around their families.
Just as there are no two families exactly the same, there are also no two workplaces the same. Therefore, top-down legislation is a solution that threatens to be worse than the problem.
Some, however, are looking forward to that reality. In her New York Times piece, Coontz advocates that we “develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice.” In the summer’s widely read Atlantic piece, Ann-Marie Slaughter wrote, “We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart.”
More women in power may lead to a greater understanding of the challenges that family and work balances present, but a top-down approach—particularly in legislation—can’t bring the flexibility that each distinctive family and workplace needs.
This is where real feminism begins—with the understanding that each woman’s family and workplace is unique. This feminism must center on respect for the choices she makes—whether that choice is about when she gets married, the number of children she has, or how many years she wants to work.
Fifty years after the launch of feminism’s second wave, the “unshackling” of women from the feminine mystique hasn't exactly unfolded as Friedan intended. We still have politicians, intellectuals, and various other experts attempting to tell women what they should want and what they should do. Perhaps it’s time for a mid-life crisis—maybe then it might make way for a twenty-first-century feminism that respects the decisions of women rather than denigrating them.
Leslie Grimard is a writer in Washington, DC.