Why The Feminine Mystique? Why Now?

February 22, 2013, 10:59 am

Today and tomorrow we are hosting a symposium at The New School for Public Engagement in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s popular feminist blockbuster, The Feminine Mystique (1963). A gathering of multiple generations of feminists in four panels and a keynote, the event was sparked by undergraduates at Parsons School of Design. These young women, who were over 25 years away from being born when the book first came out, planned an exhibit (which opened today and will be up until March 5) inspired by Friedan’s ideas as a class project. One thing led to another, and suddenly we have An Event, with a keynote delivered by feminist historian Susan Ware, who published a wonderful book on Billie Jean King and Title IX in 2011. See our fancy announcement in The Grey Lady here.

We who plan such things, of course, have endless hostess anxiety. What if you throw a shindig like this and all of lower Manhattan says “So what,” and goes back to sleep? So imagine our delight when tickets to the event sold out and the wait list grew like a pan of bread left to rise too long. As a result, we have moved to a larger venue, we have overflow rooms, and we will be live streaming.

We aren’t the only folks who have noticed this event. New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins, who wrote an introduction for the latest — and umpteenth — edition, has been talking up the anniversary and hosted a roundtable on the topic. And in today’s paper, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, reveals that she sees herself as the new Betty Friedan.

I have been surprised over the years at how deeply the book still touches students, an observation that may have as much to do with the tenaciousness of sexism as anything else.  Women still struggle with how constricting gender norms are, while many men evolved into keen observers of their mothers’ and sisters’ frustration.

Interestingly, the book’s limitations are routinely dismissed as mere artifacts of their time, and I think this deserves more attention than it gets.  For example, in 1962, the year before The Feminine Mystique became a surprise bestseller, Helen Gurley Brown published the equally enduring Sex and the Single Girl, which looked at the same phenomenon — early marriage devolving into sexless household drudgery — and offered different advice. Instead of changing the institution of marriage, Brown suggested that women try being independent.  She urged women to have as much fun as possible, to travel, to dress fashionably, and to sustain careers. She wrote extensively about how much fun it is to have affairs (on the advantages of married men: “He is frequently marvelous in bed and careful not to get you pregnant”), and she counseled that women avoid being perceived as potential wives until they were ready to settle down. In contrast to Friedan’s neo-Freudian homophobia, Brown saw homosexuality as a fact of life if a little beside the point. She extolled the value of gay men as friends and dance partners (“They are good confidants….and throw the best parties of anyone I know”) and reassured lesbians that there was no need to change if they were happy: “it’s your business and I think it’s a shame you have to be so surreptitious about your choice of a way of life.”

Neither book says a word about the pressing racial revolution of the day from which the idea of civil rights for women had also begun to emerge. Nor did either author seem aware that homophile groups had begun to enlist prominent experts like Evelyn Hooker (who had published her own path-breaking “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual” in 1957) to argue the case for depathologizing gays and lesbians.  In a way this isn’t surprising: Friedan was writing about the suburbs, which were segregated (although many suburban neighborhoods were closed to Jews as well, and surely Friedan was aware of that), and ongoing celebrations of heterosexuality. What is surprising, however, is that in the long afterlife of the book, its deep flaws are so frequently dismissed in favor of a focus on its virtues. I’m hoping this will be one of the topics we touch on this weekend.

So please join us! And, as always, if you are looking to meet Tenured Radical IRL, do come up to say hello.

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