The Mystique On Trial: Betty Friedan’s Legacy at Smith

Mia Council ’16
Assistant Features Editor

Feb. 17 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique, a landmark work written by feminist and activist Betty Friedan ’42. The blockbuster book, which took aim at the mid-20th century view of traditional American femininity, is, according to the New York Times, “commonly hailed as the book that started second-wave feminism.” This seems like a book well suited to Smith students’ interests; however, an informal poll of 34 Smith students revealed that few had actually read it.

“Never heard of it,” admitted Michelle Hannon ’14. Her companion Maria Orlic ’15 said, “I probably wouldn’t read it on my own.”

Other comments ran in a similar vein.

“I feel like it’s a book I should read, but I haven’t read it,” said Lucy Gouvin ’16. Helen Smith ’14 observed simply, “we all talk about [the book].”

“I think whether or not you agree with what [authors] say, it’s important to read the books that are part of the feminist canon,” said Elli Palmer ’16. “You need to know how movements before you thought and worked so you know how to move forward.” Had Palmer read it? “If there were four more hours in a day…” she trailed off.

The book is an important part of feminist history but has its limitations. Kathleen Banks Nutter, a women’s liberation historian by training who works as a manuscript processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, observed that The Feminine Mystique “spoke to a distinct group of white, middle- and upper-class educated women.”

The genesis of the book was a survey Friedan conducted with her Smith class at their 15th reunion.

“So it was based on Smith women, who were trapped in the suburbs with several small screaming children,” said Banks Nutter. “Friedan tried to portray herself as one of these trapped upper-class women when in fact she was a journalist and a Marxist.”

Friedan, who had a file at the F.B.I., was an unknown reporter when she submitted her academic manuscript to her publisher, W.W. Norton.

“She was an extraordinary woman to come out and say what she said when she said it,” said Bruce Sajdak, a reference librarian at Neilson who read the book a long time ago. “It was extraordinarily important then. Less so now.”

His colleagues echoed his sentiment.

“It started the conversation that led to the women’s movement,” said Banks Nutter. The survey is preserved on microfilm in the Archives. Loretta Ross, Smith’s current Activist-in-Residence, has not read it.

“I know Betty Friedan, but I never read her book… I wasn’t interested in the moanings of ’50s housewives,” the activist said, a clear nod to the differences between her own life and work and the normative world for which Friedan was writing.

As for how the archives will remember her story, Friedan’s legacy was varied and colorful. She helped found the National Organization for Women in 1966. She also supposedly referred to lesbians as a “lavender menace” because she believed lesbian associations were a threat to the emerging women’s movement. Friedan was often considered dogmatic and traditional. Friedan, who edited the Sophian at one point, described Smith as “the biggest women’s college and the best.” She died in 2006, but her views, despite being outdated today, bore great significance in recharging the feminist movement.

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