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Revisiting Betty Friedan

Revisiting Betty Friedan

Breaking free of feminism's constraints.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the book that jumpstarted second wave feminism in America. Centered around "the problem that has no name" Friedan's groundbreaking work sold more than three million copies, and it is still considered one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

What was "the problem that has no name?" It was the lack of fulfillment and the unhappiness of American house wives. But many of us who grew up in the wake of the feminist movement felt cheated somehow. We had Ivy League educations but no inner knowledge. We had careers but no direction. We were raised to get married late or perhaps not at all. We were warned to put off having children "until our careers were set."

Many who grew up in the wake of the feminist movement now feel cheated.

Many of us were skeptical of these 'gifts' of feminism. We, who had been raised on TV dinners, longed for home cooked food. We, who had come home to dark, empty houses, yearned for homes filled with noise and light. We, who had been raised to be independent, wanted connection. And when we delved into Friedan’s ideas in our college courses, we saw them in a different light than our mothers perhaps had.

Is This All?

Friedan famously asked: "Each suburban wife struggles 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 and lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask herself the silent question – Is this all?" But years of career advancement and glass ceilings broken through have brought us all back to that same question.

Substitute the routines of any job into that quote and we will all – men and women alike – be wondering the same thing at the end of the day. A career does not automatically give life meaning; a family doesn't either. Finding purpose in life takes hard work and focus whether you're working in or out of the home. Many of us felt betrayed by Friedan's promise that we would be fulfilled if we would only leave the 'home making trap' behind us.

And when we didn't feel fulfilled by our jobs, we thought maybe there was something wrong with us. Shouldn't a graduate degree, a well-paying job and an apartment in the city make us happy? So why was there still the question remaining at the end of the day as we sat in silent rooms with no one beside us and still wondered, Is this all? We knew there was more. And we wanted to find it.

What is a Home?

One of the saddest ideas in Friedan's work is her comparison of a home to a prison. By our senior year in college, most of us didn't know how to cook, sew or even do laundry. And we didn't really want to know (though learning how to use a washing machine was inevitable once the laundry service stopped after graduation). But we wanted to build homes. We didn't know what that meant, but we wanted it anyway. The black and white, hard core feminism that we had grown up with was choking us. Of course none of us dreamed of becoming a "house wife," but what about a mother?

Friedan mostly left motherhood out of her book. And perhaps this is why: once children are in the picture, a home can't be treated like a prison. It has to be a haven. It has to become somehow a place of love and safety and joy. And we could no longer afford to be fooled; a home was not merely the sum of its domestic tasks. It was a goal, an ideal, something we knew we could build if we tried hard enough.

There's a brilliant, charming woman I know who was never interested in marriage or children. She had a successful career, a boyfriend and a fascinating list of hobbies. She came up to me at a dinner party while I was holding my firstborn, feeling sleep-deprived, and said to me, "I want to know that I can go skiing in Chile at a moment's notice. And I don't need a man telling me how many hours to work or what kind of apartment to buy. Don't you ever feel like jumping on a plane and going skiing in Chile?"

The truth was that I did sometimes feel like jumping on a plane and going skiing in Chile, but so what? It couldn't compare to the miracle in my arms. Or could it?

Not long after, this woman became very ill. She could no longer keep up with her office hours. She certainly wasn't skiing anywhere and though she had enjoyed many years of flying solo, now she was alone in her apartment. An apartment where everything was set up just right but was suddenly, inexplicably all wrong.

We’re afraid to strive for the goals discouraged by feminism: marriage, children, a home.

What do we really want? We asked ourselves these questions when we first read Friedan years ago, and we are still asking them. The "problem that has no name" today is that we are still afraid to strive for the goals discouraged by Friedan's feminism: marriage, children, a home.

In 2003, The NY Times Magazine ran a cover story called "The Opt Out Revolution" featuring female graduates of Ivy League universities who actually chose to stay home with their babies instead of fast tracking it back into the workplace. These were smart, talented women who thought deeply about what they want out of life, and they wanted more than a corner office.

But why is that called the 'opt out' revolution? Why isn't it 'opting in' – when we use our strengths to build homes and lives that we are proud of? We can and should see our choices as opting in for authentic goals. Breaking free of yesterday's constraints, we can reach the heights of our potentials in and out of our homes.

'Opting in' helps us answer the question: Is this all there is?

The answer is a resolute “No.” There is always more. More love to give. More truth and knowledge to find. More light to shine into our lives and our homes. .

February 23, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 46

(27) Anonymous, March 7, 2013 1:02 AM

Feminism is Not the enemy

I read the author 's article with interest, but having studied at Neve Yerushalayim in the  1980's after spending much of my undergraduate years immersed in women's studies, I was disappointed to see the same simplistic view of gender issues  hashed out once again, and the blame for women's complicated and often excruciating dilemmas placed squarely on the shoulders of feminists. What these  women gave us was a clear understanding of the extraordinary limitations to which women's lives were subjected and the vulnerability that was the result of these limitations.  Betty Friedan was of  my mother's  generation and understood the tragic loss of human potential and fulfillment  experienced by countless women . Her contribution to half of humanity's quest for equality and justice cannot be underestimated. I am sure that had my mother had the same opportunities in education and professional  work that I have had, opportunities directly the result of the feminist revolution she would have been a much happier, more productive human being   .  I will grant that in the early days of the feminist movement, there was a tendency to buy into the sexist notion that the traditional role of women was of little value, certainly oppressive, and one most women, if they had any sense, would run from as fast as they could.  This idea, of course, was born of the fact that for so many women, this role was profoundly limited, and offered few choices for women. Nevertheless, most feminists did come to embrace the idea that family and children are essential to our lives,and then proceeded to work out the difficult task of striking a balance  between family and career.
The sense that I had when I learned at Neve was that somehow feminism had derailed women, had robbed them of their true "purpose" in life, and I felt then and  still feel that this notion is at best off base, and at worst, disingenuous.  Feminism is not the enemy; misogyny is, wherever it rears its ugly head. 

Haia, March 18, 2013 8:44 AM

I agree

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Everybody has a different path in life, different set of desires and priorities. having grown up in a hostile environment, I chose to remain alone, and I am very happy being alone. I find peace in my career and childlessness. for me it is freedom, for some it is selfishness.

Nina Mori, April 8, 2013 2:51 PM

Snap snap snap

Not sure I could say it better or differently; I agree completely.

Anonymous, November 28, 2013 1:00 PM

I couldn't have put it better myself!!

Where would we be today without feminism?

(26) L.S., March 6, 2013 12:39 PM

Oh boy, this again!

Listen up, girls: there's a simple, one-way track for ALL women to live their lives. ALL women have ONE path to follow which will bring ALL of us eternal bliss. Just look your best, find a good husband, keep house and...voila! Set for life! All problems solved! College? Well, only if it's for the MRS degree. Graduate school? Waste of time! ALL women are exactly the same which is why ALL women are the most fulfilled when they forgo financial independence, give up adult interaction, and drop all intellectually fulfilling pursuits. Come on, girls--get with the program! If you couldn't tell, I was being sarcastic. Just as SOME men are happier as lawyers while SOME men are happier as construction workers, it stands to reason that not ALL women are happiest and most fulfilled as homemakers. Some women are indeed happy being at-home moms. Other women are happiest being high powered career women. For most women, the answer is usually a mix of both family life and work life. In today's day and age of telecommuting, skype, at-home businesses, and flexitime hours, in addition to the industrialization of homemaking (gotta love the washing machine!) there has never been a better time to be a woman combining work and family. There have now been 4 decades of research trying to prove that working moms have a negative effect on their children's well being and...sad to say, there is no correlation. There are good stay-at-home mothers and bad stay-at-home mothers and there are good working mothers and bad working mothers. At the end of the day, women--like men--are individuals with unique circumstances. Fortunately, we live in an era where we can chose what life is best for us. Frankly, I am sick and tired of Aish lumping ALL women together in one category espousing that ALL women are one collective entity and that we all have the same needs, because such simplistic thinking is absurd. May G-D grant each of us the sechel to decide what is right for ourselves and our families.

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