The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition) by Betty Friedan
Introduction by Gail Collins
Afterword by Anna Quindlen
Norton • $25.95 • ISBN 9780393063790
Published February 11, 2013
I first read The Feminine Mystique as a freshman in high school. It wasn't for a class. I was on a Shirley Jackson kick and came across something connecting her to Friedan, her contemporary. (I believe it was about how most of Jackson's female characters seemed to buy into the "mystique" that Friedan would shortly identify and attack.) Curious, impressionable, and attending an all-girls school, I put down my copy of We Have Always Lived in This Castle and turned my attention to Friedan.
Although reading The Feminine Mystique (first published in 1963) certainly filled me with slack-jawed disbelief and table-pounding indignation at how the women of my grandmother's generation had been viewed and treated—and made me question my love of all of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson/Cary Grant rom-coms of the '50s and early '60s—I was still young. I hadn't entered the workforce, and I hadn't even kissed a boy yet. I couldn't really relate except through my imagination. Still, it stuck with me.
Fast-forward more than 20 years. The recent release of a 50th anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique served as the perfect prompt for me to revisit Friedan's groundbreaking work on "the problem that has no name"—the underlying discontent and resentment of a generation of women who were told that they should find satisfaction and fulfillment in housewifedom. The book was controversial and divisive from the moment it was published, but more importantly, it also inspired a generation of women to stand up for themselves and reclaim their lives.
In a new introduction written for this edition, New York Times columnist Gail Collins calls the book "a very specific cry of rage about the way intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life and regarded as little more than a set of reproductive organs in heels." While that description hardly seems applicable to the women of today, both Collins and writer and journalist Anna Quindlen—in a new afterword—remark upon the still-persuasive power of Friedan's words, as well as the timelessness and relatability of the stories shared by the women she interviewed while researching and writing the book.
The Feminine Mystique is fascinating as a historical account of the first stirrings of the women's movement. It still has me slack-jawed at some moments and pounding the table at others. But it is also remarkably inspiring and definitely worth revisiting—or reading for the very first time—whatever generation you belong to. I'll get you started with the pitch-perfect opening paragraph:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?"
Readers, which books have been inspirational or life-changing for you? Share your experiences in the comments, and just maybe someone else's inspiration will become yours, too.