The Feminine Mystique at 50

The Feminine Mystique was written 50 years ago. If you surf the internet, you’ll find plenty of articles expounding on this anniversary. Over the years, there have been a lot of opinions written about the book and its author, Betty Friedan. This year, of course, there are even more opinions, but all of them note that, as Real Clear Politics, says, “[The Feminine Mystique is a] book both hailed and reviled for launching the modern revolution in women’s roles.”

I’ve been re-reading parts of the book recently, but I first read it when it was published in 1963. For my 17th birthday, my best friend gave me The Feminine Mystique. I was about to start my senior year of high school. It was my first real introduction to the idea of women’s rights and women’s liberation, and I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I grew up in the Midwest (Wauwatosa, Wisconsin) in the 1950s. It was middle America, suburban, white, middle class. In the early 1950s I found the two great interests of my life – politics and science. I loved watching the political conventions on our new TV and participating in mock elections at school. But I also dreamed about becoming an astronomer and going into space.

I was determined to go to college, and my parents taught me and my younger sister how important education was. But the opportunities for girls seemed very limited. When I was around twelve, I remember some of the girls in junior high school talking about getting their “MRS” degrees. I had heard of a B.A. and a Ph.D., but that was a new one–until I realized that MRS simply meant that they planned to go to college to find a husband. I wanted none of that and decided that if my only choices were to get married and have kids or to be an old-maid schoolteacher, then schoolteacher it was.

The Feminine Mystique made me realize that perhaps there could be other choices for me and for other women of my generation. But in 1963 there was no organized women’s movement that I was aware of. So I went off to college in Minnesota, carried on with my science studies and continued my interest in politics.

By the time I finished college, women’s organizations had started in many places. I joined the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and spent the next decade fighting for women’s liberation and later LGBT liberation. In many respects my activist and socialist “career” is due to that first reading of The Feminine Mystique.

From its initial publication, however, The Feminine Mystique has been subject to many criticisms. Chief among them is that the book’s audience is only the white, suburban housewife. The concerns of poor women, African American women, lesbians do not appear. That’s true; in fact, in the first paragraph Friedan acknowledges this: “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.”

In fact, by looking at this group, Friedan discovered something that would form the basis for many women’s liberation groups. The suburban housewives she interviewed were often in therapy or taking drugs because they were unhappy in their lives, lives that were supposed to be the epitome of the American dream. But therapy only told them that what was wrong was wrong with them. In the decades that followed, consciousness-raising groups provided a space for women to realize that what was wrong was not wrong with them, but rather with the place and roles of women in society. Out of that knowledge came efforts to change the world.

Flawed and dated though it may be, The Feminine Mystique is a touchstone for assessing the status of women’s rights. The 50th anniversary provides an opportunity to look back and see what has changed and what hasn’t.

Before The Feminine Mystique, job ads in newspapers were divided into “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.” Those no longer exist, but women still earn a fraction of what men do for the same jobs. Before The Feminine Mystique, there were few women doctors or lawyers, construction workers or bus drivers. Today women fill many slots in those positions, but job segregation continues. Pink-collar jobs, among the lowest paid, are most often filled by women. Before The Feminine Mystique, abortion was only available in back alleys or, for wealthy Americans, in foreign countries. Today, abortion is more readily available, but the right wing has for the last 30 years made it more and more difficult to get access, not only to abortion but to birth control as well. Before The Feminine Mystique, there were no rights for lesbians and gay men and, in fact, only one state had decriminalized sodomy. Today, there is majority support for marriage equality, but young lesbians and gay men are still bullied in school.

The changes we’ve seen have been tremendous. They are by no means all attributable to The Feminine Mystique. The book started the ball rolling, however, and the years after showed us what activism can accomplish. A pamphlet from the early days of 1960s feminism said, “I don’t want to change my lifestyle, I want to change my life.”

The first socialist feminist organization I joined was the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU). (The second was the New American Movement, one of the two founding organizations of DSA.) The CWLU was organized by women who had been involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements. We understood the need for changes to both the economy and society so that they are run democratically to meet human needs. Our experience in other movements taught us that those changes had to explicitly incorporate the needs of women. We also saw that there were several trends in the women’s movement, each of which might lead to positive changes for women, but by themselves would not result in true women’s liberation.

In 1972, we adopted a position paper entitled “Socialist Feminism: A Strategy for the Women’s Movement.” In the introduction it said in part:

We choose to identify ourselves with the heritage and future of feminism and socialism in our struggle for revolution. From feminism we have learned the fullness of our own potential as women, the strength of women. We have seen our common self-interest with other women and our common oppression. . . .

From feminism we have come to understand an institutionalized system of oppression based on the domination of men over women: sexism. . . .

But we share a particular conception of feminism that is socialist. It is one that focuses on how power has been denied women because of their class position. . . .

We share the socialist vision of a humanist world made possible through a redistribution of wealth and an end to the distinction between the ruling class and those who are ruled.

As socialist feminists, we not only wanted to change our lives, we wanted to change the world. We understand that the place of women in societies around the world is determined through the intersection of the forces of gender, class, race, sexuality, country of origin, immigration status, disability, and other factors. Many of the issues we work on – the budget/debt situation, tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the middle class, unemployment and underemployment – are not only class issues, but gender issues as well. The fight for a fair economy is a fight for women’s rights. In the aftermath of The Feminine Mystique, women banded together to change the world. In many ways we did. And we can do it again.

Christine R. Riddiough serves as a Vice Chair of DSA.