‘The Feminine Mystique’ at 50, Part 2: Three Feminists on What It Means Today

Three feminists from different generations revisit Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book on its 50th anniversary. How have things changed for women in 50 years? Plus, part one of the conversation.

AP (file)

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published 50 years ago this month, all but bringing the nascent second-wave feminist movement to the national spotlight. We asked three feminists, each representing a different generation, to discuss the intellectual legacy of the book. Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of the feminist Ms. Magazine; Alisa Solomon is a drama critic and a journalism professor at Columbia University; Jessica Bennett is the executive editor of Tumblr and a former Newsweek senior writer. In part two of the conversation, they examine how the feminist movement has changed in five decades.

Alisa: Today, the feminist discourse seems to me to have narrowed. All those magazine pieces that still come out bemoaning how women can’t have it all seem to leave out the structural impediments to equality. Has 21st-century feminism so totally bought into the larger cultural insistence on individualism that we make no demands on the workplace or the state? Friedan helped teach us that the personal is political. Has the political now become completely personal?

Jess: I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that feminism as a "movement" has waned. There are certainly young women who care about women's issues today, there are bloggers and writers and organizers. But there is no Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan. There's no marching in the streets (at least not without our tops off). Is it harder to make demands on an institutional level if it doesn't feel like there's a movement behind us?

Today, the message is that you can be anything. Supreme Court justice. Secretary of State. Astronaut. President. And yet I've often wondered if that message is almost too rosy. Young women today are excelling in every way imaginable: better grades, better graduation rates, and so on. But does that only set them up for a shock? Gail Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic this week that young women who face discrimination today often “don't know what to do.” The discrimination itself is subtle, and so when it does come up it's almost hard to recognize it. By the time I was in my 20s and starting my career, it was as if the idea of gender as an inhibitor was so passé that I'd never even considered it.

Alisa: There’s no Big Sexist Jerk guarding the gates, thus, enormous challenges for any kind of movement building. Friedan encouraged women toward self-actualization—not abandonment of their families by any stretch, but widening of their worlds and aspirations. That ground shifted—and maybe resettled without the more difficult, sociopolitical reconfiguring that real equality would require. If it’s no longer a “feminine mystique” that must be bared and examined, is it the old mystique of power, operating in ways that have come to appear anonymous and natural, that poses the problem? And how in heaven’s name do you organize to change that?

Jess: Rather than fighting the system, or making demands on it, we're trying to work within it, individually, to get ahead. I'm reading Sheryl Sandberg's new book right now, Lean In, which argues (among other things) that women must learn to work within the system in their efforts to rise to power, even if they want to fight on a structural level—simply because it's what we can more easily control. I tend to agree, but this also strikes me as a particularly third-wave phenomenon, of fighting within the system, for ourselves, rather than banding together to fight the system as a whole. Whether it's effective or not, it's a very "me, then us" tactic. It actually pits women against each other.

Letty: The trouble is once they get power, they seem to change things for themselves—the female elites—but they don't change policies for everyone and make sure systemic change holds for the future. Furthermore, change doesn't trickle down because they don't make common cause with women who are the company's receptionists, file clerks, and office cleaners.

Alisa: That’s the same lack of common cause among women that Friedan herself was criticized for: she pretty much ignored class and race. Working-class women have always had jobs outside the home, of course, and a second shift in the home. Gender discrimination and prevailing assumptions about women’s domestic responsibilities certainly impinged those lives, but Friedan didn’t seem interested in—or know how to discuss—ways the “mystique” worked on them. I wonder, too, whether The Feminine Mystique played into the emerging vilification of poor African-American women at the time. I’m thinking of the notorious Moynihan Report that came out just a year or so after Friedan’s book and basically blamed black people for the consequences of poverty. The argument went that single-mother households—“matriarchies” as Moynihan termed them—emasculated men in the community, led to children’s poor academic achievement, and even to high crime rates. To this day, the conservative answer to poverty has nothing to do with economics or jobs or housing or education. It’s marriage!

Letty: Today's average young woman seems capable of reacting with appropriate outrage to injustices committed against her. What's missing is the macro-analysis, the impulse toward solidarity, the gut-level identification with one's "sisters"—including women of color, and poor and working-class women—and the willingness to organize or act collectively even if resistance makes you appear a tad unfeminine.

But generally speaking, unless their personal ox is being gored, few young women seem willing to make waves. (Block that mixed metaphor!) Maybe they don't want to be marked as troublemakers, or maybe they're afraid of reprisals, or maybe what we're seeing is the return of the "good girl," to borrow a phrase from Lynn Povich's book title, which brings us back to Jess’s Newsweek story a couple years ago assessing the gender discrimination case from 1970 and its legacy.

Jess: I think to myself, couldn't this so easily be solved just by teaching women's history in schools?! I pretty much gave myself an education in our own history once I realized how little I knew—but it was only through discovering the story of the Newsweek women, and everything that was happening around them at the time, that even convinced me that I needed to know it. The problem wasn't just that I didn't learn things that I wish I'd known, it was that I genuinely didn't think I needed to know them.

Letty: Such an important point! What troubles me about the fact that The Feminine Mystique is not read in colleges anymore is that this is part of a clear social pattern (I almost said conspiracy) to alienate one generation from the other so that each generation is condemned to rediscover the same patriarchal injustices in new forms and fight the revolution all over again. I didn't know anything about what the suffragists did 40 years before I was born until I encountered a few paragraphs about them in my sixth-grade history textbook. The accompanying photos made them look like crazy ladies and discontented old maids. (Plus ça change!) The language of the text suggested that "women were given the vote" rather than that women won the vote after a bravely sustained 60-year struggle— by chaining themselves to the White House gates, moldering in prison, maintaining hunger strikes (and being painfully force fed), and otherwise putting their lives and bodies on the line.

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The women of each subsequent generation are encouraged/pressured to dissociate themselves from the radical heroism of the prior generation. Rather than today's young women feeling like the heirs to a glorious legacy, they disavow those who came before. Who wants to be one of "Them" when you can be new, cool, critical, and ironic?

Alisa: Does feminism require leaders in the 21st century? Organizing, yes. But can it happen in the messy, horizontal, DIY-Occupy style, without offices and boards of directors and spokespeople and fundraising campaigns? My two cents: it had better!

Jess: Great organizing can certainly happen in the messy, DIY-Occupy style, without the hierarchy of campaigns. And great organizing and protest can happen online, via massive petitions, via blogging, via Twitter campaigns and hashtags, and so forth. I'm thinking, say, of the campaign by three New Jersey young women to have a female moderator of the presidential debates, which earned 170,000 signatures on

The problem, it seems, is that these examples are few and far between. Most of these campaigns deal in the specific over the institutional—i.e., a female moderator, which is fantastic but doesn't address the larger institutional problems of why there was no female moderator in the first place, or why there are so few women at the heads of news organizations, or businesses, and so on. It's certainly easier (and perhaps more effective) to focus on specific, targeted causes. But what about the larger problems? What about the problems that would really require a massive sense of anger, among women all across the country, to change?

Letty: I keep a New Yorker cartoon on my study's wall whose caption says: "The subject of tonight's panel is: Why are there no women on this panel?"

Alisa: Lest I leave off on a pessimistic note, I hasten to add: There is so much great local organizing being done in communities, workplaces, schools, religious institutions ... Maybe it’s just a different model of movement making than we saw, and needed, 50 years ago, and one just has to plug in where she feels drawn and do the work.

I was so struck reading that 1997 addendum Friedan wrote for The Feminine Mystique by her apparent certainty that ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment was right around the corner. Could such legislation even pass Congress today?

Oh, wait, I said I wasn’t going to be pessimistic …