Comment bumped to post for easy linking to the point: after about 1970, it seems few feminists read their foundational tome, The Feminine Mystique. It’s relevant to something else I’m writing today. From the comment thread on the Weight of Regret last month:
Re: hard bound books, funny you should mention not being able to find them–they weren’t that well read past their first printing. Even The Feminine Mystique, perhaps the foundational work, the “click” that started the Second Wave–did you notice that in all the 50th Anniversary articles, many feminist scholars and advocates, not regular women but the women who ply feminism as a trade, they were reading the book for the first time. I seriously wonder if only conservatives have actually read it since about 1970, which of course is how we know that feminism was never about choice, but certain choices. For the 50th, The Guardian ran a TFM reading blog, a “Pop Up Book Club,” because many of their writers hadn’t read it. Emily Bazelton and others at Slate posted some very revealing articles about how they hadn’t read it. (I commented late there because some of the last comments were too delicious to resist.) I liked this passage in particular:
I mean, Friedan compares, at chapter length, the plight of women stuck at home with their kids to concentration camp victims. Sure, I’ve never had to sit alone with a mop and a crying baby and no Internet (side question: Was the problem that had no name possibly the lack of Wi-Fi?), [This might be the silliest aside I've seen in a feminist article and proof that the author must have speed read TFM. Loneliness and isolation was only a side effect of the problem with no name, and the wi-fi mommy-blog solution only treats the symptoms.] but that seems more than a bit extreme to me. In fact, as much as I found myself cheering at the stirring introduction and conclusion, for much of the middle of the book, I was muttering and angrily underlining what I found to be particularly judgmental passages. “A baked potato is not as big as the world,” Friedan writes, “and vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.” Sharp is right! Is it any wonder it occasionally feels like feminism has devolved into a spinning carousel of accusatory blog posts about how your choices aren’t the exact right choices (including your choice to blog about your choices), with this as one of our founding texts?
Stephanie Coontz didn’t read it until Basic Books asked her to do a 50 year retrospective.
I jumped at the chance. I was certain that rereading this groundbreaking book would be an educational and inspiring experience…. After only a few pages I realized that in fact I had never read The Feminine Mystique, and after a few chapters I began to find much of it boring and dated…. It made claims about women’s history that I knew were oversimplified, exaggerating both the feminist victories of the 1920s and the antifeminist backlast of the 1940s and 1950s.
And the first review of Coontz’s A Strange Stirring:
I am a young professor of sociology teaching classes on gender, marriage and social change — and I have never read Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique. Like many women of my generation, I thought I had. I must have, I told myself. Perhaps in college? No. And it turns out that very few of my well-educated feminist-leaning friends have either.
Considering TFM’s influence, anyone serious about participating in American intellectual discussion should have read the book. For a professional writers on feminism to not have read it—-their admission completely kills their credibility, and explains quite a lot about modern confusion over feminism.
As a practical matter, feminists’ failure to study their history, to read the text, means that they’ve spent 40 or so years essentially telling us what feminism means to them, cherry picking the bits they liked and denying the bits they didn’t. It’s a shame. If they had read the book, they might have recognized the foundations for some of their ills today. For instance, the common lament that society is too focused on economic activity and devalues care giving, some of that blame belongs to Friedan’s insistence that women must seek paid employment. They also might have avoided the Mommy Wars, as Friedan foresaw that corporate jobs and early motherhood would not mix well. While recommending that women come up with a long arc life plan, she suggested that they might best combine early motherhood with graduate education. But the simple logic of front loading childbearing and back loading career is today’s writing topic.
For anyone who has not yet read The Feminine Mystique—I know moms are short on time to read 50 year old social commentary—just read the last chapter, “A New Life Plan for Women”. You can avoid most of the heated rhetoric, find the best explanation of the mystique, and see how much better the feminist movement might have been if Friedan had won the movement’s internal struggles in the 70s when she fought against trading the housewife mystique for the sex goddess mystique or the career woman mystique. Alas, she lost. And the Mommy Wars were born.