Like many people, Betty Friedan decided to attend a college reunion fifteen years after graduating. The institution of higher learning was a prestigious women’s college, Smith. Unlike most people who attend a college reunion, Friedan came equipped with a stack of surveys to hand out to two-hundred of her classmates who had also shown up for the reunion. Friedan also came equipped with a suspicion of what the surveys would reveal and her suspicions were almost immediately confirmed as she pored over the consistent results of answers to her questionnaire.
American women were not happy. To make things worse, they couldn’t really pinpoint the exact cause of this satisfaction. Friedan proceeded to write a paper drawing conclusions from her survey of women about to move into middle age which she submitted to three different high profile magazines catering to women. Each periodical rejected the paper on the grounds that her conclusions were in direct opposition to most long-held conventional beliefs on the subject of femininity.
Five years later, after more intense research and an expansion of conclusions to directly address those cherished conventions and how reality was undeniably subverting their ideals, Friedan exploded onto the consciousness of American feminism. The year was 1963 and all hell was about to break loose. And there at the vanguard of a revolution that was about to bring every cherished piece of conventional wisdom under the microscope was The Feminine Mystique. A book that more than a half a century later is still the target of attacks from anti-feminist ideologues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
Criticism of Friedan’s groundbreaking book has truly covered the waterfront. Friedan’s research has been labeled pseudoscience and her book has been accused of introducing into the feminist movement many of the negative aspects that drive the vociferous reaction of those like Limbaugh and Beck. Tellingly, perhaps, an unusual volume of criticism has been directed less toward what Friedan had to say about the mystique of the feminine than the way she said it; her writing has been labeled as everything from “invincibly stupid” to “strident and angry.”
Few non-fiction books have held such a firm grasp on the American zeitgeist for as long as The Feminine Mystique. That it still retains its divisive power is also a sign that the feminist movement still has some way to go before everyone is convinced.