When the proposal for a book about the plight of the American housewife by a little-known journalist named Betty Friedan began circulating at the publishing house W.W. Norton in early 1959, not everyone was convinced that it was a world-changing blockbuster.
True, George Brockway, Norton’s president (and a suburban father of six), was enthusiastic, writing on the official evaluation form, “Overstated at almost every point, yet entirely stimulating and provocative," to which two other employees added, “I’m for it!"
But in a two-page memo to Brockway, preserved in the Norton archives at Columbia University, another employee identified only as “LM" laid out a withering dissent.
Friedan’s theories were “too obvious and feminine," LM wrote, her approach was “unscientific," her remarks on Freud were “snide," her depiction of suburban life was selectively self-serving, and her excoriating portrait of women’s magazines was motivated by “guilt" over her own contributions to them.
Besides, LM concluded, “I got very tired of phrases like ‘feminine mystique.’"
That phrase, of course, became famous when “The Feminine Mystique" was published, 50 years ago, to wide acclaim and huge sales, and it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddesshood Friedan is sometimes credited with demolishing.
But her book has been shadowed by its share of critics ever since, including many otherwise sympathetic scholars who have doggedly chipped away at its own mystique.
Friedan, who died in 2006, was not just the frustrated “housewife" of her official biography, they point out, but a former left-wing journalist and activist whose jeremiad appeared in a climate that was more primed to receive it than she might have admitted.
“The Feminine Mystique" tends to be hailed simply as “the book that started second-wave feminism," said Lisa Fine, a historian at Michigan State University and a co-editor of the first annotated scholarly edition, just published by Norton. “But it’s a much more complicated text."
In an influential 1993 paper on postwar popular culture, the historian Joanne Meyerowitz argued that mass-circulation magazines of the 1950s frequently profiled women with careers, although the articles emphasized the importance of maintaining a traditional feminine identity.
More recently, other scholars have pointed out that readers encountering “The Feminine Mystique" through the excerpts that appeared in women’s magazines might not have heard an entirely empowering message. In “Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America" (2010), the historian Rebecca Jo Plant argued that to many readers, the book seemed less like a progressive rallying cry than a continuation of the housewife-bashing of books like Philip Wylie’s 1942 best-seller, “Generation of Vipers," which blamed over-involved mothers for all manner of social ills.
For all she got right, Plant wrote, “Friedan missed — indeed, she contributed to — the frustrations many women felt due to a cultural climate that constantly denigrated mothers and homemakers."
Still, few historians quarrel with the idea that the book galvanized women, including some who would hardly seem like natural political allies of a writer who (as the historian Daniel Horowitz revealed in his 1998 biography, to Friedan’s displeasure) cut her teeth as a reporter for radical newspapers and had a file with the FBI.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State University and the author of “A Strange Stirring," a 2011 study of the effect of “The Feminine Mystique," describes finding some surprising testimonials from readers preserved in the Friedan papers at Harvard.
“I found letters from Mormon women, Baptists — the kind of women who wouldn’t agree with Friedan on lots of political issues, but knew they had been relegated to second-class citizenship," Coontz said in an interview.
Some women, however, may have been mobilized in directions that ran counter to Friedan’s intentions.
The historian Jessica Weiss, in a 2012 paper called “Fraud of Femininity" (a reference to the title of an excerpt from “The Feminine Mystique" published in McCall’s), traced the book’s effect on conservative women, who saw the embrace of domesticity not as a backward-looking defense of tradition but “a positive, proactive means of countering social disintegration" and national decline. (Weiss noted that nearly 90 percent of the women who wrote to McCall’s in response to a second excerpt from the book were critical of Friedan.)
To some scholars, however, the epochal impact of Friedan’s book derived less from its complex intellectual origins than from her simple rhetorical masterstrokes, starting with the phrase that Norton’s “LM" was so irked by.
“Friedan’s genius," Coontz said, “was to provide, with ‘feminine mystique,’ the first phrase you could use to explain that you thought there was something wrong, and that it was a lie."