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Mad Women: Wives and Daughters of the Greatest Generation

A new book probes the myths and reality of 'The Feminine Mystique,' the groundbreaking book that revolutionized our ideas about women's lives.

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AD: What kind of work lives did women have when Friedan wrote her book?

SC: It was absolutely commonplace that women were paid less than men. They had to go to the “help wanted” female ads, where the main qualifications were “perky” and “well groomed, trim.” One New York Times ad actually demanded, “You must be really beautiful.” Ninety percent of school districts had a rule that you had to quit if you got pregnant. One that shocks people is the example of an airline attendant who actually hid that she had a child. When the airline found out, they said either quit work or put the child in an orphanage.

AD: And how did Friedan fit into that environment, personally?

SC: She had a husband and eventually three children. And although she had been a brilliant student and a feisty writer for a union newspaper, she did have experience with the feminine mystique. She felt pressured out of her job with her second child. Her husband was an ad exec moving up in the postwar world, moved away from center of town, kept moving further out. She started remodeling and worked as a volunteer. She was struggling to find a place for herself, live in the suburbs, work out a career for herself.

She herself had a difficult marriage. The success of her book exacerbated her marital conflict but gave her the means to leave her husband. But this is not what she advocated in the book. In fact, she argued that women would be more likely to appreciate their husbands and be warm wives and mothers if they had interests outside the home. I talked to many women whose husbands had read the book and their lives had changed for the better. The husbands who refused to read the book were those whose marriages broke up.

AD: On a basic level, what is a mystique?

SC: It’s a mystification and a distortion of reality that seems to be good. Even today, if you look up “feminine mystique,” you can find people saying, “Let me help you create a feminine mystique,” like a magician who makes a woman appear to be more beautiful than she is. That’s why Betty Friedan picked that word, that being feminine is beautiful, satisfying, all-consuming and all-fulfilling. And the reality beneath is far less pleasant.

AD: Are there new mystiques that have replaced the feminine mystique?

SC: There is the sexual empowerment mystique….Now it’s no longer the idea of being a dirty women if you have sex; instead, there’s pressure on women at an early age to look hot and act sexual and not say no. What started as liberation that you can be a powerful women and say yes has become a new form of pressure on some young women. I call it the hottie mystique.

The other is the motherhood mystique – the pressure to do super-parenting, which falls especially harshly on women. Moms are there to make every moment a teachable moment. And of course there is also a masculine mystique, which is still alive and well.

AD: Back to Friedan, did her book overlook some women and speak more to elites?

SD: The book did appeal mostly to one group of women who weren’t hurting as much in objective terms – where their next meal was coming from, if their husband was laid off or kids get beaten up on way to school. They felt something was wrong with them for not being happy.

I came to also believe that what was bad about neglecting African-American women is Friedan could have used their example. If you look at African-American women you see that women can be activists in communities, co-providers, and sons and husbands will still love them.

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