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.”
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.