THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE is the Tupac Shakur of literary feminism, reincarnated at least once every decade with new insights that engender old beefs while at the same time serving as a reminder of why it’s a classic. Indeed, the book’s legacy often takes the form of whatever the written equivalent of an earworm is, its ideas setting up lifelong camp in (largely female) brains absent any real effort or study. Several years ago, Stephanie Coontz began writing a history of how The Feminine Mystique had impacted a generation of women; the result, 2011’s A Strange Stirring, found that many who had believed they’d read the book realized that, in fact, they hadn’t — they had simply absorbed it by osmosis. Similarly, those holding vehemently antifeminist beliefs considered the book an unforgivably radical text, full of screeds against everything from marital rape to — you guessed it — the tyranny of brassieres. Writes Coontz, “When they tried to explain the gap between what they ‘remembered’ and what I told them the book actually said, they usually decided that the title had conjured up such a vivid image in their minds that over time they had come to believe they had read it.”
With the 50th-anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, it’s time for a new round of both griping and celebrating. In the introduction, Gail Collins, author of When Everything Changed: The Remarkable Journey of Women from the 1960s to the Present, notes that its primacy as the mother of all feminist texts stands on contested ground. Critics, she argues,
are right to be a bit flummoxed that although Friedan was writing during the civil rights movement, she barely mentions African American women. Working-class women make their appearance mainly in a few suggestions that married women who want to work might want to hire a housekeeper or a nanny. And, remarkably, Friedan managed to write a whole book indicting American society for its attitudes toward women without discussing its laws.
The case against The Feminine Mystique, of course, includes many more charges. There’s the fact that Friedan presents her thesis as a truth bomb of her own original building, giving no credit to earlier texts that grappled with women’s existential despair about their role in society — notably Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (published in 1949) and sociologist Mirra Komarovsky’s Women in the Modern World: Their Education and Their Dilemmas (1953). There’s the specter of Friedan’s well-known homophobia: her belief that homosexuality was “spreading like a murky smog over the American scene” had far-reaching consequences after she founded the National Organization for Women and denounced lesbian inclusion in the movement for women’s equality as a “lavender menace.” There’s the problem that some of the key material undergirding her arguments — Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, Alfred Kinsey’s work on human sexual behavior — has since been revealed to have itself been faulty, as Alan Wolfe noted in a 1999 Atlantic article. The fact that she was also a pain in the ass — feminists far and wide have recalled Friedan’s abrasive personality, and in her 2000 autobiography, Life So Far, she copped to being "a ba...read more