February 19 marks the 52nd anniversary of the day that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique hit bookstores. Although it was the 1960s and times were "a-changin’," the conventional standards to which women had been tied were only beginning to be challenged. The book, which dared to question the happiness (or as it was, the unhappiness) of housewives, among other aspects of femininity, is often credited with launching the second-wave of feminism.
The inspiration behind The Feminine Mystique came to be when, for an upcoming reunion of her Smith College class, Friedan was asked to survey what everyone had been up to since graduation. It was during this project that she realized many of the women with whom she had graduated from school weren’t very happy in their position of housewife — "the problem that has no name," as she called it. So she decided to take her research several steps further, and The Feminine Mystique was born.
In addition to the controversy that surrounded the book when it was released, there’s so much more to know about Betty Friedan and her now infamous book. Here are the eight things you should know on its anniversary.
1. Betty Friedan Did Not Set Out To Write A Book
The inspiration for the The Feminine Mystique came in the form of a project for her upcoming college reunion. It was during her survey of her former classmates that she came to realize that most of them just weren’t happy in the role of housewife. Initially, she hoped that the information she had gathered would make for a great article, but every women’s magazine she contacted refused to publish it. Instead, she delved in even deeper into the phenomenon of the depressed housewife, and the result was The Feminine Mystic.
2. Friedan Was Labeled An ‘Angry’ Woman After The Book’s Publication
The backlash that came from the publication of The Feminine Mystique was inevitable. As Friedan said herself, “a lot of women don’t like my book because they feel threatened by it.”
As Time notes, the majority of reviews of the book involved the words “anger” or “angry,” and LIFE’s review called Friedan the “Angry Battler for Her Sex,” and the book an “angry, thoroughly documented book that in one way or another is going to provoke the daylights out of almost everyone who reads it.”
3. 'The Feminine Mystique' Is Credited With Starting The Second-Wave Of Feminism
Although the second-wave of feminism was very much already coming to be in 1961 with the publication of the "Presidential Commission on the Status of Women," it wasn’t until two years later, with the release of Friedan’s book, that things really started to evolve. It was The Feminine Mystique that, as the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory notes, laid the groundwork for the decades to come.
It didn't just become a bestseller, but, as the New York Times wrote in Friedan's obituary, The Feminine Mystique, "ignited the contemporary women's movement... and permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world."
4. Friedan Was Heavily Influenced By Simone de Beauvoir
While Friedan influenced generations of women, it was the French existentialist philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir who influenced her most, so much so that her book, The Second Stage, is a play on words of de Beauvoir’s work, Le Deuxième Sexe.
She said of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex “that introduced me to that approach to reality and political responsibility ... [and] led me to whatever original analysis of women's existence I have been able to contribute.”
5. Friedan's Book Has Been Called Classist And Racist
Friedan was an educated woman who was married to a wealthy man when she wrote The Feminine Mystique, and the women whom she interviewed for her piece were all very similar, as they, too, were graduates of Smith College. Because of this, many criticize that Friedan’s book and the “problem” she wrote about did not include all women, but just that of the stereotypical wealthy, bored housewife who most likely, was white.
In her 1984 book, From Margin to Center , the renown black feminist theorist bell hooks said The Feminine Mystique was both classist and racist, and acted as if women who were not white and upper-middle class just simply did not exist.
She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife," wrote hooks.
6. Friedan Was Homophobic
Friedan wrote in memoir Life So Far that "homosexuality made me profoundly uneasy," even going so far as to ignore lesbians in the National Organization of Women (which she founded) in the beginning stages. In The Feminine Mystique, she referred to homosexuality as a "murky smog," that was spreading over America. She felt that the implications of this "smog" were going to be "frightening."
Although her feelings in homosexuality softened with time, she never "fully embraced gay rights as a key part of the feminist cause."
7. Friedan Blamed Freud For Facilitating The Idea Of The Happy Housewife
At the time The Feminine Mystique was published, Sigmund Freud’s ideas had become very influential in the United States. Having a degree in psychology, Friedan was a vocal advocate against the damage Freud’s ideas had on women, most notably his “penis envy” theory, in which adolescent girls, upon realizing they don’t have penis, are somewhat angered by this.
According to Friedan, Freud’s philosophy tried to give a “scientific reason” to why women shouldn't have a life outside the house, all the while patronizing the female gender.
8. 'The Feminine Mystique' Is Founded On A Lie
According to Daniel Horowitz’s Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan lied about who she was and how she came to feel the way she did. Although she was honest about the fact that she had come up with the idea after the project for her college reunion, she cast herself as one of those unhappy housewives, even claiming to be a housewife at home with four kids, when in reality, she was a freelance writer at the time, who was married with three kids.
She also did not come to the "political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife," but had already been radical leftist activist during her years at Smith College, from 1938 to 1942. She’d also been an active Marxist even before that when she was just a girl.