Feminine Mystique at 50
Betty Friedan hailed the advent of women’s studies. She should have looked more closely.

Betty Friedan



Fifty years ago, Friedan criticized the lack of seriousness in the college curriculum for women. She devoted an entire chapter to lambasting what she called the “sex-directed educators” and their “sex-directed curriculum,” lamenting the dying breed of “the old-fashioned educators who still believed the mind was more important than the marriage bed.” A college education, Friedan argued, shouldn’t merely be a pursuit of a wedding ring, or functional training for married life. Teachers, she believed, should be concerned with their students’ “future use of trained intelligence.” She characterized the sex-directed educators as “crusaders against the old nontherapeutic, nonfunctional values of the intellect, against the old, demanding sexless education, which confined itself to the life of the mind and the pursuit of truth, and never even tried to help girls pursue a man, have orgasms, or adjust.”

Friedan took issue with courses focused exclusively on marriage and the family: “Instead of teaching truths to counter the popular prejudices of the past, or critical ways of thinking against which prejudice cannot survive, the sex-directed educator handed girls a sophisticated soup of uncritical prescriptions and presentiments, far more binding on the mind and prejudicial to the future than all the traditional do’s and don’ts.”

It is difficult to see how the sex-directed curriculum offered in the late 1950s on marriage and the family was any less practical or intellectually demanding than the sex-obsessed curriculum offered by today’s women’s-studies departments. How does a discussion of sexual consent or violence engage the life of the mind, let alone prepare women for the careers in law, business, and medicine that Friedan deemed serious? Pseudo-academic disciplines like women’s studies seem to offer nothing more than, as Friedan put it, “a sophisticated soup of uncritical prescriptions and presentiments.”

Read today, her words of 50 years ago seem prophetic. Unwittingly, Friedan aptly depicted the challenge faced by today’s women’s-studies major who graduates with no job and much debt: “As educators themselves admit,” she wrote, “women’s college training does not often equip them to enter the business or professional world at a meaningful level, either at graduation or afterward; it is not geared to career possibilities that would justify the planning and work required for higher professional training.” The problem today, of course, is that by and large educators do not admit to these facts. At least the educators of the 1950s were honest about their expectations.

The feminists in higher education today in fact have betrayed Friedan’s ideals. In the process, they have damaged the reputation of scholarship and hurt women who have invested in useless degrees. This cannot continue.

In dealing with women, universities should focus on empowering and encouraging them to study the great books, politics, economics, and other disciplines that were once denied to them. The preoccupation with sexuality and popular culture is neither intellectual nor practical. Insultingly, women’s studies as currently constituted presumes that women are interested only in women’s issues. Women deserve better. And while Friedan was wrong about many things, today’s feminists seem to have overlooked some of her most important lessons.

― Lauren Noble is the founder and executive director of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale and a former writer for the Romney campaign. The views expressed here are her own.