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The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan

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Critical Overview

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When The Feminine Mystique was first published in 1963, it exploded into American consciousness. Most critics were polarized in their views of the book. In the 1963 review for the Times Literary Supplement, the reviewer notes: ‘‘If, then, there is still a feminist fight to be fought it is for the right to work. And if they are to win it women must have all the ammunition they can of the calibre of this book.’’ Likewise, in her 1963 review of the book for the American Sociological Review, Sylvia Fleis Fava applauds Friedan's solution to the problem that has no name. Says Fava: ‘‘Her answer, that we should take women seriously as individuals, not as women, resounds throughout the book; I heartily agree with it.’’ However, some positive critics, including Fava, had reservations about the book. Says Fava: ‘‘Friedan tends to set up a counter-mystique; that all women must have creative interests outside the home to realize themselves. This can be just as confining and tension-producing as any other mold.’’ Others gave mainly negative reviews, such as the 1963 reviewer for the Yale Review, who says of Friedan's ideas that ‘‘we have heard it before. But it is a long time since we have heard it in such strident and angry tones.’’

By the time the tenth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique was published, the modern women's movement was underway. In fact, many reviewers, such as Jane Howard in her 1974 review of the tenth-anniversary edition for the New Republic, noted the book's influence. Says Howard, Friedan's book, ‘‘more than any of the torrent of feminist documents that followed, set the women's movement in motion.’’ Howard also notes that the book was written "with more passion than style, but her effect was and still is persuasive.'' Over the next decade, The Feminine Mystique also received critical attention upon the publication of Friedan's next two books: It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (1976) and The Second Stage (1981). Critics still had mixed views about Friedan's original book. In the Saturday Review, Sara Sanborn notes: ‘‘Every woman in America, whether she knows it or not, owes Betty Friedan a debt of gratitude.’’ In regards to the modern women's movement, Sanborn says that "Friedan sounded the kick-off signal in 1963.’’

Others found fault with Friedan's research. In the New York Times Book Review, Herma Hill Kay says that the ‘‘suburban housewives’’ depicted in the book did not represent ‘‘large numbers of American women.’’ Still others criticized the style. In her Commonweal article, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels says that the book had ‘‘endless yardage of popular prose laced with pseudo-psychology and sociology, chapter after chapter badly patched from old magazine articles.’’ One of the most scathing reviews of The Feminine Mystique, and of Friedan herself, came from R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., who notes in the American Spectator that Friedan is an ‘‘invincibly stupid,’’ ‘‘egregious pest,’’ who has ‘‘spoken to an entire generation of young women and left them miserable, filling housewives with doubt and embarrassment while sending the professional gals out to scrimmage for their daily grub.’’

Today, critics are still largely divided in their views of The Feminine Mystique, which is still Friedan's best-known work. Some still consider Friedan's book as the main impetus for the modern women's movement, while others think that Friedan did more damage than good with her book. For example, in her 1995 Commentary article, Carol Iannone criticizes Friedan for introducing many negative aspects into feminism. These include making ‘‘the condition of the postwar American woman seem one of soul-strangling asphyxiation and spiritual death’’; helping ‘‘initiate the now ever-expanding tendency to blame the most personal and complex of the ills of life on social or political conditions’’; and helping ‘‘define that useful paradox so beloved by activist leaders, whereby unhappiness, anger, frustration can be seen as signs of health.’’

Regardless of whether a critic likes Friedan, few can deny the influence she has had on feminism. Says Mary Brewer in her 2001 entry on Friedan for the Dictionary of Literary Biography: ‘‘Despite its inconsistencies and drawbacks … Friedan's theory of feminine identity constructed by a male-dominated society has become seminole to feminist thought.

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Critical Context


Essays and Criticism