Betty Friedan’s classic of second-wave feminism turns 50 today. The New York Times’ Jennifer Scheussler offers a reappraisal:
Indeed, some cracking its spine for the first time — as more than one commentator on the 50th anniversary has sheepishly confessed to doing — may be surprised at just how scholarly the book is. Friedan, who claimed she gave up a prestigious Ph.D. fellowship in psychology after a boyfriend said it would threaten their relationship, spent years in the New York Public Library, digging as deeply into the theories of Freud, Margaret Mead, A. H. Maslow and David Riesman as into the women’s magazines she blasted for perpetuating the mythology of the “happy housewife.”
Today that immersion in midcentury social science may make the book feel dated and more of a symbolic totem than a direct inspiration to current feminists. But to historians “The Feminine Mystique” remains a rich keyhole into the popular culture of the 1950s — even if, as scholars increasingly argue, that decade was far less monolithic in its stultifying conformism than Friedan’s best seller suggested. In an influential 1993 paper on postwar popular culture, the historian Joanne Meyerowitz argued that mass-circulation magazines of the 1950s frequently profiled women with careers, although the articles emphasized the importance of maintaining a traditional feminine identity.
More recently, other scholars have pointed out that readers encountering “The Feminine Mystique” through the excerpts that appeared in women’s magazines might not have heard an entirely empowering message. In “Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America” (2010), the historian Rebecca Jo Plant argued that to many readers, the book seemed less like a progressive rallying cry than a continuation of the housewife-bashing of books like Philip Wylie’s 1942 best seller, “Generation of Vipers,” which blamed over-involved mothers for all manner of social ills.
For all she got right, Ms. Plant wrote, “Friedan missed — indeed, she contributed to — the frustrations many women felt due to a cultural climate that constantly denigrated mothers and homemakers.”
Still, few historians quarrel with the idea that the book galvanized women, including some who would hardly seem like natural political allies of a writer who (as the historian Daniel Horowitz revealed in his 1998 biography, to Friedan’s displeasure) cut her teeth as a reporter for radical newspapers and had a file with the F.B.I.