When the proposal for a book about the plight of the American housewife by a little-known journalist named Betty Friedan began circulating at the publishing house W. W. Norton in early 1959, not everyone was convinced that it was a world-changing blockbuster.
True, George Brockway, Norton’s president (and a suburban father of six), was enthusiastic, writing on the official evaluation form, “Overstated at almost every point, yet entirely stimulating and provocative,” to which two other employees added, “I’m for it!”
But in a two-page memo to Brockway, preserved in the Norton archives at Columbia University, another employee identified only as “L M” laid out a withering dissent.
Friedan’s theories were “too obvious and feminine,” L M wrote, her approach was “unscientific,” her remarks on Freud were “snide,” her depiction of suburban life was selectively self-serving, and her excoriating portrait of women’s magazines was motivated by “guilt” over her own contributions to them.
Besides, L M concluded, “I got very tired of phrases like ‘feminine mystique.’ ”
That phrase, of course, became famous when “The Feminine Mystique” was published, 50 years ago on Tuesday, to wide acclaim and huge sales, and it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish. But her book has been shadowed by its share of critics ever since, including many otherwise sympathetic scholars who have doggedly chipped away at its own mystique.
Friedan, who died in 2006, was not just the frustrated “housewife” of her official biography, they point out, but a former left-wing journalist and activist whose jeremiad appeared in a climate that was more primed to receive it than she might have admitted.
“The Feminine Mystique” tends to be hailed simply as “the book that started second-wave feminism,” said Lisa M. Fine, a historian at Michigan State University and a co-editor of the first annotatedscholarly edition, just published by Norton. “But it’s a much more complicated text.”
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.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College and the author of “A Strange Stirring,” a 2011 study of the impact of “The Feminine Mystique,” describes finding some surprising testimonials from readers preserved in the Friedan papers at Harvard.
“I found letters from Mormon women, Baptists — the kind of women who wouldn’t agree with Friedan on lots of political issues, but knew they had been relegated to second-class citizenship,” Ms. Coontz said in an interview.
Some women, however, may have been mobilized in directions that ran counter to Friedan’s intentions. The historian Jessica Weiss (a Cal State East Bay history professor), in a 2012 paper called “Fraud of Femininity” (a reference to the title of an excerpt from “The Feminine Mystique” published in McCall’s), traced the book’s impact on conservative women, who saw the embrace of domesticity not as a backward-looking defense of tradition but “a positive, proactive means of countering social disintegration” and national decline. (Ms. Weiss noted that nearly 90 percent of the women who wrote to McCall’s in response to a second excerpt from the book were critical of Friedan.)
In a new round table in the journal Gender and Society, Ms. Coontz acknowledges that it is not known how many readers of “The Feminine Mystique” became politically active, or how many second-wave feminist leaders had even read the book. Indeed, Friedan was hardly without her critics in the movement, who blasted what they saw as her myopic focus on educated white women or her sometimes over-the-top language, whether she was comparing suburbia to “a comfortable concentration camp” or warning the National Organization for Women, which she help found in 1966, against an encroaching lesbian “menace.”
Some scholars, however, have defended aspects of Friedan’s work that sound most outlandish to contemporary ears. In an essay excerpted in the new Norton critical edition, Kirsten Fermaglich, a historian at Michigan State and the volume’s co-editor, argued that Friedan was hardly the only Jewish thinker of the period to make use of extended Nazi metaphors while saying nothing about Jews. The historian Stanley Elkins, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and the psychologist Stanley Milgram, she wrote, all used Nazi concentration camps, much as Friedan did, as a metaphor for mass society’s destruction of the individual.
To some scholars, however, the epochal impact of Friedan’s book derived less from its complex intellectual origins than from her simple rhetorical masterstrokes, starting with the phrase that Norton’s “L M” was so irked by.
“Friedan’s genius,” Ms. Coontz said, “was to provide, with ‘feminine mystique,’ the first phrase you could use to explain that you thought there was something wrong, and that it was a lie.”