Episode 28

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

Published on: 11th May, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be talking about one of the most groundbreaking books of the 20th Century. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, written in 1963, sent shockwaves through the world that still reverberate today. Some readers may view it as a relic that represents the world as it used to be - the book itself was instrumental in changing society, so a lot has changed since then - but for me, I recognized the “feminine mystique” in many ways as the very world I grew up in, and that still continues today in many conservative religious environments. Particularly Mormon listeners might find it interesting to know that the leadership of the LDS church was standardizing its doctrine and practices in an initiative called “correlation” during the 1950’s and 60’s, so the ideal 1950’s patriarchal American family, with the father as the sole provider and the mother at home, made a huge, indelible stamp on Mormon doctrine and Mormon culture. And I understand from friends of other faiths that something similar happened in other conservative denominations as well. So this book was an absolute revelation for me, and I can’t wait to discuss it with my reading partner today, Marta Wilde. Hi, Marta!

Marta: Hi, Amy!

Amy: Marta and I met in Los Altos, California - our oldest children were in high school choir together, and our youngest children were in the same elementary school classrooms at our local elementary school. The first time we talked was when we were both chaperoning our kids’ 5th grade field trip to a local Spanish mission. That’s relevant for today, because the thing Friedan’s book really rails against is being a stay-home mom: one of her chapters is called “The Comfortable Concentration Camp.” So in full disclosure, Marta and I are both currently full-time moms. But anyway, Marta, that day that we chaperoned together, I was so struck by your warmth and humor, and also by your personal story, and I’m wondering if you could share a little about yourself and what perspective you bring to the discussion today.

Marta:  Sure Amy.  My full name is Marta Luna Wilde.  I’m the youngest of nine children, and I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I think pertinent to this book is the fact that I have 7 brothers and 1 sister.  My family immigrated from Central Mexico in 1962, with my father having worked in the Bracero Program after World War II (he started working in that program in 1948 or 49).  In the 60s to early 1980s, my dad worked as a cook at Stanford University which allowed me to play in and around campus throughout my childhood.  That was definitely an amazing backyard in which to grow-up.  I got a BA from Stanford 1987 and M.Ed from UCLA in 1990.  My professional career includes teaching in Los Angeles, Redwood City, and Palo Alto; I served as a program trainer with the Accelerated Schools Project (for disadvantaged schools) while it was still at Stanford’s School of Education; and I worked as a social science researcher developing curricula at the Prevention Research Center at Stanford’s School of Medicine.  Currently, I’m a stay-at-home mom, but am interested in finding ways to use my background in education to promote environmental education in schools, specifically with bilingual Spanish/English language learners.  On a personal level, I’m married to my physicist/engineer husband and we have three daughters aged 13,13, and 21.  The twins attend school in Los Altos and my older daughter goes to college in NYC.   Despite the pandemic, our family is thriving in this crazy world turned upside down.  Covid-safe visits with my 93 year old mother in nearby Sunnyvale help keep me grounded and provide an optimistic perspective on day to day living. 

Amy: Thanks so much, Marta. And then I also like to ask my reading partners what their thoughts are on Breaking Down Patriarchy. Why were you interested in this project?

Marta: Well, I think we have certainly made progress in breaking down patriarchy, but we still have a long way to go.  I don’t know of many (actually I don’t know ANY) women who have lived their lives without experiencing and noticing lopsided societal structures that favor men over women.  In my personal life growing up with 7 brothers and 1 sister, it was immediately clear that my brothers enjoyed privileges that I did not.  I remember very strongly voicing to my playmates that I really wished I were a boy because then I could do more things.  I was often told I couldn’t go out and do certain activities because I was a girl.   There was even pay inequity working at my parents’ grocery store, where I was paid less for the same job that my brothers did.   And in my parents’ home, the division of labor was way unfair with all the indoor household chores falling to my mom, my sister, and me.  While the outdoor chores were done and shared by 7 brothers.  That was so crazy because cooking, feeding, cleaning house, and doing laundry for seven “athlete” brothers is quite a lot of work.   And later, when I was teaching, I noticed that the pay for elementary school teachers predominately taught by women was significantly less than for high school teachers which had a lot more male teachers.   Finding a male teacher in elementary school is STILL uncommon.  I know there have been great strides advancing opportunities for women, because I see it in my daughters and their perspective on life and how they fit into society.  They can not fathom being treated unfairly, and they don’t see any career that is NOT available to them.  Seeing our first female vice-president seems natural to them.   But, I’d like to get to a place where we don’t have to notice the novelty of firsts.  It would be wonderful to have a world where men and women play important societal roles (domestic and professional) in equal numbers.  I know we are not there, but I’d like to believe that work like yours builds understanding and can chip away at constructs that hold us back.   Wouldn’t it be nice to actually get to that genuinely egalitarian society?

Amy: Wouldn’t it, indeed?? :) Awesome, well thank you so much for that, Marta. And again, I’m so very very glad you’re here. 

One last step before we start discussing Betty Friedan’s book is to learn a little a bit about who she was, and what led her to write this book. So let’s take turns telling a bit of Friedan’s story. I’ll start us off, and then Marta, you can take the second half if that’s ok.


Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born on February 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, the oldest of three children of Harry Goldstein, a Russian immigrant and jeweler, and Miriam Horowitz Goldstein, a Hungarian immigrant who worked as a journalist until Bettye was born. The Goldstein family was Jewish, and Friedan later said that her "passion against injustice...originated from my feelings of the injustice of anti-Semitism".

She graduated summa cum laude from Smith College - which was and still is an all-women’s college - in 1942 with a degree in psychology, and then spent a year on a graduate fellowship to train as a psychologist at the University of California Berkeley. As World War II raged, Friedan became involved in a number of political causes. She left the graduate program after a year to move to New York, where she spent three years as a reporter for the Federated Press. Next, she became a writer for the UE News, the media organ for the United Electric, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. She became involved with various labor and union issues, and she also began an interest in women’s rights authoring union pamphlets arguing for workplace rights for women.

In 1947, Friedan married Carl Friedan, who worked in producing theater and advertising. They had three children—in 1948, 1952, and 1956, and in 1956, the couple moved from Queens, New York, to suburban Rockland County, where Betty became a housewife, supplementing her family’s income with freelance writing for women’s magazines.



For her 15th college reunion in 1957 Friedan conducted a survey of college graduates, focusing on their education, subsequent experiences and satisfaction with their current lives. She started publishing articles about what she called "the problem that has no name", and got passionate responses from many housewives grateful that they were not alone in experiencing this problem.

She spent five years conducting these interviews, charting white, middle-class women’s metamorphosis from the independent, career-minded New Woman of the 1920s and 1930s to the housewives of the postwar era who were expected to find total fulfillment as wives and mothers. Women everywhere voiced a “malaise” from what Friedan dubbed, “the problem that has no name.” 

Freidan titled her book The Feminine Mystique, and published it in 1963. For a bit of historical context, this is from the forward to The Feminine Mystique, 

“In 1963, most women weren’t able to get credit without a male cosigner. In some states they couldn't’ sit on juries; in others, their husbands had control not only of their property but also of their earnings. Although Freidan obsesses about women getting jobs, she does not mention that newspapers were allowed to divide their Help Wanted ads into categories for men and women, or that it was perfectly legal for an employer to announce that certain jobs were for men only. Even the federal government did it.” (xii)

The book hit a nerve, becoming an instant best-seller that continues to be regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. It helped transform public awareness and brought many women into the vanguard of the women’s movement, just as it propelled Friedan into its early leadership. In 1966, Friedan joined forces with Pauli Murray and Aileen Hernandez to found the National Organization for Women, with Friedan as its first president. She and Pauli Murray also authored NOW’s mission statement: “…to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” (The idea for NOW was apparently brainstormed by a group of women in a hotel restaurant, with Friedan writing their ideas on a paper napkin.) The organization’s first action: to demand that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforce the provisions of Title VII guaranteeing equality in employment. [Remember the name Pauli Murray and Title VII, because we will be reading Pauli Murray’s incredible essay about Title VII in a couple of weeks.]

Friedan was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus with Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and feminist Gloria Steinem. Through these organizations, Friedan was influential in changing outdated laws such as unfair hiring practices, gender pay inequality, and pregnancy discrimination.

However, Friedan was criticized by other feminists for focusing on issues facing primarily white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual women. Radical feminists also blasted Friedan for referring to lesbian women in the movement as the “lavender menace,” citing the fear that if the women’s movement aligned itself with gay rights, it would reinforce the stereotype of feminists all being lesbians and they wouldn’t be taken seriously. Friedan believed the only hope for change was by retaining the movement’s mainstream ties and social acceptability. This alienated her from younger, radical, and visionary feminists.

Friedan nonetheless remained a visible, ardent, and important advocate for women’s rights who some dubbed the “mother” of the modern women’s movement. Since the 1970s, she published several books, taught at New York University and the University of Southern California, and lectured widely at women’s conferences around the world. Friedan died in 2006 of congestive heart failure.

(Sources: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/betty-friedan and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Friedan)


Amy: Ok, let’s dive in! And since we just talked about Friedan’s blind spots and mistakes in her lack of inclusivity, let’s start there. I want to hear what you think of this quote, Marta, which is from an article in The Atlantic called “Four Big Problems With The Feminine Mystique,” by Ashley Fetters, written on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication in 2013. (I highly recommend reading that article - you can find a link to it in the show notes.)


Fetters quotes bell hooks saying this:

“Friedan’s famous phrase ‘the problem that has no name,’ often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle-and upper-class, married white women - housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. ...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.”

What’s your take on that, Marta? 


Well, this observation that bell hooks makes stuck out glaringly to me.   The problem that has no name was NOT what I observed in my mom (who coincidentally married in 1947 (like Frieden) and is the age of the women Frieden writes about).   My mother’s experience is exactly what bell hooks is referring to in her critique since my mom was not college-educated, middle or upper-class, or white.  She was definitely NOT bored with leisure and running a household.  Because we were quite poor when my family immigrated to the US, my mom worked the night shift at Libby’s cannery in Sunnyvale to help make ends meet.  So, she was managing the entire family/household operation AND she worked the night shift, sleeping briefly while we kids were at school.  She always had a strong sense of purpose and did not question her role as a wife, mother, and human on earth.   The only thing I would add about my mom, is that despite feeling very self-assured and capable, it was STILL very much recognized that our father was king of the household.  She would complain about that, getting angry about how he thought only his way was the right way, but I don’t think it diminished her self-perception or worth.  So, overall I agree that bell hooks does have a valid critique in this regard.  The feminine mystique only describes the experience of a select group of “privileged” of women.  It seems to describe women in a gilded cage.  They are surrounded by luxury and steeped in first world problems.  

But, here is one thing I want to be sure to point out.  The feminine mystique describes a problem that only affected a select subset of women, but it was important during that time (as it is less prevalent now) that these women’s experiences were validated and explored.  

One thing that has bothered me when discussing women’s issues is that we often pit one group against another.  It’s important to have critiques like hooks’ so that we broaden the scope of research and understanding.  At the same time, the feminine mystique did tap into a real problem where many women were short-changing the possibilities in their life experiences.

It’s so powerful to hear your mom’s experience, Marta. I agree with you that it’s a really important, glaring oversight, and every time Friedan mentioned “servants” or “household help” when I was reading I just cringed. 

And I also agree with you that too often women get pitted against each other, and we can be so hard on ourselves and on each other. One thing I want to make clear before we start the conversation is that any woman who is listening to this should be very gentle with their own past choices, and very gentle with other women’s choices. We are all doing the best we can with the information we have at each moment of our lives, and especially regarding motherhood, we can be so hard on ourselves and think “Oh no, I did it wrong and I ruined my children!” Life is a process of learning, and also, there is no such thing as perfect. Every choice comes with pros and cons, so let’s see what we can learn from this book but also take everything with a grain of salt and with compassion for ourselves and each other. 

I agree with that Amy.  We are all just figuring it out.  We are a product of a time and place and the things we are exposed to.  Everyone has a different experience, but with conversations like this we may learn to see how others’ values and perspectives are formed, AND we might be able to broaden those notions by sharing our own insights and experiences.  So thanks for inviting me to talk about this book.


Amy: Thank you!! Ok, so The Feminine Mystique has 14 chapters, and trying to narrow it down was reeeeeeally hard. Honestly, if listeners are only going to read a few of the books from cover to cover, I would choose this one to be on the short list - every single chapter was sooo important - even if I didn’t agree with everything she said - and also so readable. Anyway, we chose just four chapters. Marta will talk about Chapter 1, “The Problem That Has No Name,” then I will talk about Chapter 4, “The Passionate Journey,” then Marta will take Chapter 9, “The Sexual Sell,” and I’ll take Chapter 13, “The Forfeited Self.” So take it away, Marta!


Marta: The Problem That Has No Name

I think it will be helpful to provide a little context about the time when Frieden is writing.  Here is a quote from the book that describes how women saw themselves and how society viewed them as well:

Concerned over the Soviet Union’s lead in the space race, scientists noted that America’s greatest source of unused brain power was women. But girls would not study physics: it was “unfeminine.” A girl refused a science fellowship at Johns Hopkins to take a job in a real-estate office. All she wanted, she said, was what every other American girl wanted- to get married, have four children and live in a nice house in a nice suburb. (4)

The suburban housewife - she was the dream image of the young American woman and the envy, it was said, of...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.