Of course, even if The Feminine Mystique is rated a dreadful book, there remains the possibility that its author did a great deal for American women. This view will seem intuitively plausible to anybody who believes that feminism itself did a great deal for them. There is certainly no doubt that Betty Friedan was one of, arguably the most important of, the movement’s “founding mothers” (to quote again from the many obituaries). Possessed of boundless energy, an instinct for leadership, and self-confidence verging on arrogance, if not megalomania—even the most fawning obituaries felt obliged to mention her dictatorial impulses—she seemed always to be out front during the formative years.
In 1966 she was the main founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and in the 1970’s played significant roles in creating the National Women’s Political Caucus (slogan: Make Policy, Not Coffee) and the National Abortion Rights Action League. And the evidence suggests that, despite its flaws, The Feminine Mystique did succeed in articulating the grievances of a certain class of American women while simultaneously packaging an ideology for the nascent movement.
Well, what did feminism do for American women? Many people would argue that it had at least one important and incontestable achievement: the opening-up of broad new career opportunities for women, and especially for those with a claim to intelligence and education, like many of the suburban homemakers described in The Feminine Mystique. But this argument needs to be seriously qualified.
During the years in which the movement was taking shape, something else was happening: an explosion in the number of educated women: the number of female college graduates in America more than tripled (to around 5 million) from 1940 to 1970. It is inconceivable that this swelling supply could have long existed without creating its own demand in the labor markets. With or without a feminist movement, educated women would have seen opportunities opening up. Indeed, it is fascinating to speculate on a counterfactual scenario wherein they would have received their opportunities without the unpleasant side-effects of movement feminism: without sexual warfare, affirmative action, boundless litigation, and maybe even without the raging political correctness that would make it increasingly troublesome, even for a president of Harvard, to mention the possibility of innate differences between men and women.
A difficulty for anyone who wants to believe in Betty Friedan and also in the feminist movement is that she herself became a critic of it. During the 1970’s, she was increasingly unhappy with its emphasis on lesbian concerns and obsessive anti-male rhetoric. In 1981, she produced The Second Stage, a book intended to bring feminism back to its senses—to reestablish its relevance for heterosexual women who expected to marry and have children. Referring to women’s “femininity,” she complained in the opening chapter: “We blush even to use that word now.” Her new position brought on breaks with other feminist icons, including Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.
But The Second Stage did not have the resonance of The Feminine Mystique, and utterly failed in its effort to force the movement back on track. Part of the problem here was that even while disagreeing with the movement’s radicals, she shared many of their basic assumptions. Like them, Friedan assumed that the women’s movement must always be on the Left. Like them, she took it as axiomatic that, aside from certain reproductive differences, men and women were indistinguishable. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter began talking about a military draft and indicated that such a draft would include women; quite a few women proved unthrilled by the prospect, and The Second Stage, which appears to have been written at about this time, registers concern about such women. They are said to be demanding equal rights while failing to accept equal responsibility.
Finally, we learn from The Feminine Mystique that her own marriage was a shambles. This brings us to an inescapable question: whether the unhappiness Friedan purported to find among affluent suburban women was somehow reflecting her own wretched situation. In principle, of course, a book’s findings should be judged on the evidence put forward by its author and not by details of the author’s life. In principle, the problem that has no name could have been discovered by a suburban housewife who thought her own life was marvelous. But when an author is passionately committed to sensational new ideas for which the evidence is shaky, it is impossible to avoid suspicions about her own problems and predispositions.