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

Betty Friedan



This month marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. While the controversial book offers much to disagree with, there is no denying how much circumstances have changed for women in America since its publication. She wrote about “the problem that has no name”: “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 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries . . . she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’” As it concerns higher education, “the problem that has no name” has become a problem by another name.

Writing in 1963, Friedan lamented the declining engagement of women in the life of the mind. She recalled a visit back to her alma mater, Smith College, in the late 1950s. Reading the college newspaper, she learned of a class in which “the instructor, more in challenge than in seriousness, announced that Western civilization [was] coming to an end,” and, in response, “the students turned to their notebooks and wrote ‘Western civ — coming to an end,’ all without dropping a stitch.”

According to Friedan, female students weren’t simply uninterested in the material. She argued that they were uninterested in getting a serious education, instead putting their search for a husband before anything else. Throughout The Feminine Mystique, Friedan expressed concern about the rate at which women dropped out of college to marry and go to work while their husbands completed their own schooling, as well as about women’s access to education, be it a proper high-school education or an advanced degree.

Nowadays, her worries seem quaint, especially to many in my generation. Half a century later, the pendulum has swung decisively. In 2011, it was reported that, for the very first time, women held a larger share of advanced degrees than men did. Women attend the top colleges, start businesses, anchor news programs, serve as secretary of state, and compete for the presidency.

Many of the problems women face — including the complicated questions of work-life balance, such as those eloquently relayed by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — are the problems of progress. They are the inevitable consequences of women’s following Friedan’s advice to pursue graduate degrees and professional careers.

And Friedan celebrated that progress. For example, in a 1997 addendum to The Feminine Mystique titled “Metamorphosis: Two Generations Later,” she pointed out that women’s studies was beginning to be taught around the country, “not only . . . as a serious separate discipline, but in every discipline now, new dimensions of thought and history are emerging as women scholars and men analyze women’s experience, once a ‘dark continent.’”

But it is worth considering whether universities actually live up to Friedan’s ideals. Many of these women’s-studies departments have gone off on bizarre tangents, bearing no relation to most women’s experience or interests.

Take the most recent course catalogues from leading institutions of higher education. This academic year in women’s-studies departments, students can immerse themselves in courses such as “Friends with Benefits?,” “Virgins, Vamps, and Camp: Gender and Sexuality in Classical Hollywood Cinema,” “Gender in a Transnational World,” “Black Sexuality in Literature and Popular Culture,” and “Types of Ideology and Literary Form — Pornography, Gender, and the Rise of the Novel in Europe.”

Perhaps the most bizarre of them all is “Theorizing Sexual Violence.” What, exactly, is there to theorize about? Rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violence are wrong; end of story.

And then there’s last semester’s course on “Theory and Politics of Sexual Consent.” The course description tells us that the class covers “topics such as sex work, nonnormative sex, and sex across age differences explored through film, autobiography, literature, queer commentary, and legal theory.” The course explores the “political, legal, and feminist theory and critiques of the concept of sexual consent.”