By Stephanie Coontz
Professor of History and Women’s Studies
The Evergreen State College
Fifty years ago Betty Friedan touched off an international uproar with her claim that millions of women had been ensnared by a set of myths about women’s nature: the fiction that women were naturally passive, sexually and intellectually; that they wanted nothing more than to be dependent on a man; and that they got their deepest fulfillment in life out of keeping a spotless home. Friedan called these myths “the feminine mystique,” and she made the then-controversial claim that “women are people” as well as females, possessing aspirations and capabilities similar to those of men. She urged women to reject the feminine mystique and pursue a meaningful life outside as well as inside the home.
In the half century since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, many myths have grown up about what Friedan actually wrote and what the feminist movement, which she helped found, has and has not achieved. Here are four of the most common.
THE ANTI-MALE MYTH: Betty Friedan was a man-hater, and The Feminine Mystique was anti-marriage.
REALITY: Friedan hated housework — and her willingness to say so was considered shocking in the early 1960s — but she believed that marriages would be more harmonious and loving when wives were free to find meaning in their own work or community activities rather than seeking fulfillment solely through the accomplishments of their husbands. She even suggested that her tombstone should read: “She helped make women feel better about being women and therefore better able to freely and fully love men.” And today, research confirms that couples with egalitarian gender values report the highest relationship satisfaction.
THE ANTI-HOMEMAKER MYTH: Feminism has hurt homemakers.
REALITY: In 1963, when The Feminine Mystique was published, only eight states gave stay-at-home wives any claim on their husband’s earnings, even if they had put their husband through school and then devoted themselves to raising the children for 40 years. “Head and master” laws gave husbands the final say over financial decisions, whether a wife could get a credit card, and where the couple should live. Rape was legally defined as “forcible sexual intercourse with a woman other than one’s wife.” Feminist-inspired reforms have improved the lives of homemakers as well as of employed women.
THE CAREER WOMAN MYTH: The entry of women into the workforce and their growing educational advantage over men has destabilized marriage and doomed many women to a life of loneliness.
REALITY: As more wives went to work divorce rates initially rose, but this trend reversed as people adjusted to women’s new status. Divorce rates have been falling since 1980. Today the states with the highest percentage of working wives tend to have the lowest divorce rates.
Educated women are now just as likely to marry as any other group of women and because they are so much less likely to divorce, by age 40 they are the most married group of women in America. Three-quarters of female college graduates aged 40 are married at age 40, compared to two-thirds of women that age with some college education, 63 percent of high school graduates, and only 56 percent of women with less than a high school degree. Women who earn more than $60,000 a year are more likely to be married than low-earning women. And now, women who choose to remain single have far more options to lead successful and fulfilling lives than ever before.
THE POST-FEMINIST MYTH: Women are now equal to or have even drawn ahead of men, so gender equity is no longer an issue
REALITY: Women still earn less than men with the same educational credentials in every occupation, and more women than men live below the poverty level. At the same time, women have impressively increased their representation in high-earning and high-status occupations. But as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg shows in her forthcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, they are still held back from top leadership positions by remnants of the feminine mystique that persist in the minds of others and in their own internalized self-images as well.
Young women no longer feel that they need to play dumb or pretend to be bad at sports, as the old feminine mystique mandated. But the spread of what I have called “the hottie mystique” has led to a sexualization of young girls that can distract them from exploring their new options. It has even convinced some women that it is empowering to work at the new crop of “breastaurants,” where waitresses are decked out in sexually titillating outfits and trained to stoke their male customers’ egos with compliments and coquettery.