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It wasn’t enough for Betty Friedan to change the world–she should have perfected it, too.

January 28, 2011

Betty Friedan

A new book this week drew attention to Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. “No woman ever got an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor,” she once said. Amazingly that remark didn’t end opposition to women’s rights.

What shocks me about the discussion surrounding Stephanie Coontz’s A Srange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s is the ubiquitous criticism that Friedan was an “elitist.”

Apparently it wasn’t enough to write about what she knew, the stifling existence of privileged middle-class white women –as if in one book Friedan should have surveyed the whole of women’s inequality, and perhaps civil rights as well, rather than merely founding a revolution and changing the world.

In The New York Times Book Review, Rebecca Traister opens with a discussion of Coontz’s “ambivalence” toward “Friedan’s elite scope.”

Traister reports  that Coontz’s initial reaction “was to dismiss the pain of the middle-class housewives as less ‘real’ than that of their working-class sisters.”

Coontz frets that so few working class women read The Feminist Mystique and finds herself “distressed” that “[t]he book’s appeal seemed to be concentrated among such a relatively privileged section of women.”

In a longer and more measured assessment of both Friedan and Coontz, Louis Menand notes in the New Yorker: “Other writers, over the years, have criticized The Feminine Mystique for ignoring working-class and nonwhite women…”

(As a counterbalance, here’s The New York Times obtuse 1963 review — by a woman, no less — which dismisses Friedan’s book by blaming women for their own discontent: “The fault, dear Mrs. Friedan, is not in our culture, but in ourselves.”)

I find these charges of “elitism” against Friedan to be baffling. For Coontz to disparage the suffering of educated middle-class women, stifled in their roles as housewives, mothers and passive sexual objects, is to miss the entire point of the feminist movement:

That’s the humanist notion that every person is equally valuable, deserving of autonomy and equal opportunity. Such a principle goes up as well as down: Why should it apply less to a Smith-trained housewife living in a posh New York suburb than a maid working at a Manhattan hotel?

Besides, the subject of  the legitimate discontents of privileged women, barred from useful work outside the home, is enough for one book, especially one as powerful as The Feminine Mystique. Slamming Friedan’s book because it doesn’t include working class women is like attacking Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring because it focuses on DDT and doesn’t include mercury, lead or dioxin.

What’s more, The Feminine Mystique, whatever its faults real or imagined, is the founding document of the Second Wave of feminism–in other words, everything we think of as feminism today: equal rights, equal opportunity, equal pay, inclusive language and so on.

In fairness to Coontz, who has apparently written a smart and important book, she comes around after interviewing almost 200 women who were moved and radicalized by The Feminine Mystique.

Traister says A Strange Stirring is “a timely contribution to the conversation about what constitutes progress for women (and for which women) in these days of mommy wars and mama grizzlies.” Menand calls it “a useful revisiting” of Freidan’s work.

Betty Friedan, who died in 2006, went on to become a leading figure in the feminist movement she helped found. She was the first president of the National Organization for Women (1966-1970), worked tirelessly with fellow feminists like Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem (at last when they weren’t fueding), and helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

“I felt it was a mistake to put feminism in opposition to the family,” Friedan told me in a 1988 interview for the Sun-Sentinel. “When I said the women`s movement is not against men or the family, I was criticized by certain feminists.

“What movement of men would not have had in-fighting?” she added.

By the time I crossed paths with Friedan, her major contributions were behind her, but she remained energetic and engaged. At 66, she had turned her attention to aging, and was in South Florida researching a book she hoped would do for the elderly what The Feminine Mystique had one for women.

Brusque and defensive, Friedan bridled when when I misstated the title of her masterpiece as “The Feminist Mystique.”  “It’s The Feminine Mystique,” she barked. but she warmed up quickly as we spoke.

“The mystique of age is even more pernicious than the feminist mystique,” Friedan said. “I’m applying everything I learned in he last 25 years about women to the age question.”

The Fountain of Age came out in 1993 but though it received some favorable reviews it failed to start a revolution — or, indeed, make much of a splash at all. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. Or, more likely, perhaps one revolution per lifetime is all that even the most exceptional pioneer is allowed.

`I don`t regret a single thing,” Friedan said to me. “The women`s liberation movement has been a great experience of life. Being a part of making it happen has been wonderful.“

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2011 1:45 pm

    She wrote some very good books. They had quite an impact on Women and the movement. Some folks seem a bit intimidated by her writing.

  2. Alex B permalink
    January 30, 2011 9:13 pm

    I am not sure if you have read “A Strange Stirring” of if you are just going off reviews, but Coontz ends up really honoring what Friedan did for homemakers, noting that she learned it was silly to try to make a moral histerachy of whose pain counts more. I would also say listen to Coontz on Fresh Air (link below) to hear how much she supports what Betty did for middle class women.

    I also know Coontz has a facebook and twitter page and responds to people, so if you have a question for her maybe you should contact here.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 31, 2011 11:42 am

      Well…on the one hand, I do say, “in fairness to Coontz,” that she comes around to an appreciation of The Feminine Mystique, and I am picking only one aspect of a long and serious book for the pleasure of picking a nit or petting a peeve. On the other hand, according to the NPR piece you link, “Coontz says A Feminine Mystique is now dated and narrow in scope…” It also makes the same point I do: “Coontz says she didn’t fully appreciate the book until she interviewed almost 200 women and men who had read The Feminine Mystique when it was first published.”

      I don’t mean to disparage Coontz’s book — this is a smarty-pants blog entry, not a book review — but I am discussing an attitude I find “baffling.” Who was Friedan supposed to write about if not educated middle-class women? I still don’t understand that criticism.

  3. January 31, 2011 12:20 pm

    At the time she wrote the book thing were much narrower. In a way she is being asked to cover all the changes and growth in the movement. I think Coontz is looking at today and questioning yesterday. There are not many book I like that are written about other books. It does not mean they are bad, I just do not like them much.

  4. March 28, 2011 8:22 pm

    Terrific work! That is the kind of info that needs to be shared across the web. Shame on the major search engines for not positioning this put up greater!


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