Culture

How Feminism Lost the Feminine Mystique

Helen Gurley Brown in 2001 (Reuters)
The women’s movement was hijacked and distorted by the sexual revolution.

The first edition of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique was pro-family and pro-men. It made no mention of contraception or abortion. It was a questing philosophical work, not a screed.

Seen from the vantage of today’s feminism, these are startling facts. Friedan’s groundbreaking work was crucial in launching second-wave feminism, the movement that tore through the 1960s and revolutionized the way women were treated in the workforce, in public life, and at home. And yet nowhere in that first edition was there any talk of the two topics that have become culture war battlefronts. The tone is passionate but not angry. It was only years later that Friedan would make culture war issues a part of her particular brand of feminism.

When she first published her book, Friedan was tapping into something much deeper than social or political issues. The problem with modern women was not family and children, she argued, but the idea that family should be your entire life. Hungry for creative and intellectual work and hobbies, suburban women felt isolated. Suffering from “this nameless aching dissatisfaction, women,” Friedan wrote, were “trapped in endless and empty housewifery.” (Of course, not all of them were.)

Friedan’s critique was not an indictment of the family. Consider what she said about families in some interviews:

Women are the people who give birth to children, and that is of necessary value in society. . . . Feminism was not opposed to marriage and motherhood. It wanted women to be able to define themselves as people and not just as servants to the family. You want a feminism that includes women who have children and want children because that’s the majority of women.

Or:

I’m not anti-marriage and anti-family. I always thought it was dangerous to go against the idea of family. I don’t even like the phrase ‘women’s liberation,’ because that idea of being set free from everything doesn’t seem right to me. I like to think of the women’s movement as a fight for equality.

Those quotes were dug up by investigative journalist Sue Ellen Browder, author of the book, Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement. Browder was a writer for Cosmopolitan in the 1960s and 70s, at the height of the sexual revolution. In Subverted, she contrasts Friedan with Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown. Browder joined Friedan’s movement after she, Browder, was unjustly fired from a small newspaper when she became pregnant. She took a job with Cosmopolitan, which drew her into Brown’s orbit. According to Browder, “Helen saw not lack of education or economic opportunities but motherhood as ‘the insurmountable obstacle to real liberation for women.’” Brown believed that women should be able to have a lot of sex without consequence — that they should be like men.

Won over by Brown, Browder churned out “hard-core sex-revolution propaganda masquerading as fluff.” She helped invent the “Cosmo Girl,” which she described as “not a real person but a persona, a mask the single girl lonely and alone in the world could put on to turn herself into the object of man’s sexual fantasies.”

Today, it’s clear the Helen Gurley Brown version of feminism has won, although today’s feminism is also plagued by misandry and social justice warrior rage. Friedan’s original text is largely forgotten, altered in the mid-1960s when Friedan became convinced by a man named Larry Lader to include more concessions to the culture wars.

Today’s feminism is equal parts of Helen Gurley Brown’s sexual adventurousness and Gloria Steinem’s anger (unsurprisingly, Friedan was critical of Steinem). Women are allowed to dress however they like, but men are ordered to have no reaction. Women have a special way of communicating and solving problems, yet at work they are to be treated no differently than men. They are magical and fantastic creators of life, but we are ordered to cheer when they recover their workout bodies three days after giving birth. The media celebrates single mothers and ignores traditional families, the same families once honored by Friedan.

Men are also no longer allowed to have tender feelings towards women, never mind outright longing; nor are they to engage women in heated debate. Such talk is derided as “mansplaining.” At the recent Democratic National Convention, left-wing TV host Rachel Maddow was put off by part of Bill Clinton’s speech — the part where he was gushing about “that girl,” a term he used for Hillary Rodham when he first met her in college. “A+ for the end of the speech,” Maddow said. “But I think the beginning of the speech was a controversial way to start, honestly. Talking about ‘the girl,’ ‘a girl.’ Leading with this long story about him being attracted to an unnamed girl.”

She went on: “Building her whole political story for the whole first half of the speech around her marriage to him. Unless there were worries that this was going to be too feminist a convention, that was not a feminist way to start. But the end of the speech was really good.”

Maddow should go back and read Friedan’s original critique. In it Friedan wrote something that today’s feminists should take to heart: “The chains that bind [a woman] in her trap are chains in her own mind and spirit. They are chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, on incomplete truths and unreal choices.” If the feminist movement wants to remain relevant to a new generation of women, it should consider returning to its roots.

— Mark Judge writes for Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.

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