The Feminine Mystique

Thomas Allen
Thomas Allen

By Brittany Shoot

Betty Friedan was always cold. Cooped up in a rented stone house, the onetime newspaper reporter wore gloves at her typewriter, laboring over freelance articles in the quiet moments she could catch between tending to her two grade-school boys.
Her husband, Carl, was more than unsupportive—he was abusive, a cheat who flew into a rage whenever dinner was delayed. But Friedan, who was pregnant with their third child, knew that escaping the marriage would be difficult. Cut off from Manhattan and even from the nearest library, the freelance work she attracted didn’t pay well enough to make leaving an option. Mostly, she wrote for other reasons. Once a brilliant academic with a promising career, Friedan was stuck in housewife hell, bored out of her mind. She needed the escape.

In 1957, Friedan picked up an assignment from her college alumni magazine. It seemed fun. What she didn’t know was that the project would not only make her a household name—it would change the fate of American women.

"Just Be A Woman"

Born and raised in Peoria, Ill., Bettye Goldstein was a gifted student. She skipped second grade and eventually graduated with honors from Smith College, where she was an outspoken war critic and the editor in chief of the school newspaper. From there, her academic dreams took her to the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied under the renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.

But even in the Bay Area’s liberal atmosphere, the pressure to conform to the era’s strict gender roles was palpable. Threatened by her success, Friedan’s boyfriend pushed her to turn down a prestigious science fellowship. As she’d later write in her autobiography, Life So Far, “I had given up any idea of a ‘career’, I would ‘just be a woman.’ ” Friedan abandoned her academic pursuits and took a newspaper job. But as her relationship with her boyfriend fizzled, Friedan’s love of reporting grew. When a colleague at UE News, the labor paper she was working for, set her up with his childhood friend, theater director Carl Friedan, they fell for each other. The couple married in 1947 and settled in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

It wasn’t long before the marriage soured. Betty kept up with household chores. She got pregnant. But nothing she did was good enough for Carl. She managed to finagle more than a year of maternity leave from her job after giving birth, but when she became pregnant again two years later, the union refused her additional leave. Instead, she was fired on the spot.

Meanwhile, the Friedans needed more space for their expanding family. They rented a stone barn–turned-house in Rockland County, 30 miles outside Manhattan. Shortly after their move, Carl became abusive. Isolated in the suburbs, Betty continued to squeeze in time for freelance work. As tension escalated, Betty stood her ground—if she was going to free herself from her husband, she’d need to earn more money.

With her 15-year college reunion approaching, Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her Smith classmates. How had her fellow alumnae used their education? How satisfied were they with their lives? Collaborating with two friends, she crafted open-ended questions to elicit honest reactions from the more than 200 women to whom she sent surveys.

Friedan hoped the data might refute the findings in Ferdinand Lundberg and Dr. Marynia Farnham’s popular book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which made arguments like “The more educated the woman is, the greater chance there is of sexual disorder.” She knew education didn’t cause women’s sexual dysfunction, but how could she prove it?

As the completed surveys poured in, Friedan got her answer: The forms were filled with heartbreak and honesty. Women from all over the country confided the abject misery of their everyday lives, and the answers betrayed widespread feelings of resentment and isolation. Many women said they were undergoing psychoanalysis but said the treatments were only making their symptoms worse. Most male doctors were telling their female patients that the complaints were unwarranted or expected. Indeed, Lundberg and Farnham considered these complaints part of “a deep illness that encouraged women to assume the male traits of aggression, dominance, independence, and power.” Many doctors even urged patients to dive deeper into domesticity and to more fully embrace chores as a source of self-actualization. And yet, in their answers, none of the women extolled the virtues of vacuuming.
As Friedan read the reports, she thought about the ads that bombarded women on a daily basis: Be a supportive wife! Cook better meals! Scrub that tub! The messaging in women’s magazines was as biased as the doctors’. No wonder women felt trapped. Each was convinced that she was the only woman in the world who couldn’t find joy hiding beneath a stack of dirty dishes.

Armed with the survey results and her own media analysis, Friedan headed to Smith for the 1957 reunion. There, she planned to report her findings and speak in-depth with her former classmates about their collective ennui. But she was startled by the scene on campus: None of the current students she spoke with seemed keen to pursue interests or careers outside of suburbia. Perhaps they were buying into the arguments that magazines like Look were promoting at the time, stating that the modern housewife “marries younger than ever, bears more babies, looks and acts more feminine than the emancipated girl of the Twenties or Thirties.” The young women at Smith seemed more accepting of “their place” than when Friedan had graduated, a decade and a half earlier.

Place Holders

It was clear to Friedan that she had uncovered a major crisis facing middle-class American women, but you wouldn’t have known it from the reaction she received. Academics were skeptical and outright dismissive of her survey results. Magazine editors (most of whom were men) were uninterested in challenging the status quo—or sacrificing advertising revenue for the sake of a story. A handful of editors initially bought her pitches, only to deem the finished pieces too scandalous to publish. At Ladies’ Home Journal, editors reframed one of her articles to say the exact opposite of what Friedan had found, so she killed the story.

Friedan soldiered on. She conducted more interviews with alumni groups and students at other schools, neighbors, counselors, and doctors. She published where she could. Eventually, she persuaded Good Housekeeping to give her a platform by agreeing to play by its rules: Every column had to be presented with an optimistic slant. But as she continued to write, it became clear that only a book could adequately describe “the problem that [had] no name.”

In late 1957, Friedan managed to land a $3000 book advance from W. W. Norton. She hired a baby-sitter three days a week and annexed a desk in the New York Public Library’s Allen Room, assuming the book would take a year to complete. She couldn’t have predicted how long her manuscript would hold her hostage.

Five years later, her dogged determination paid off. In 1963, The Feminine Mystique, the now-classic treatise on the pervasive unhappiness of American housewives, made its debut on the New York Times bestseller list. It was the definition of irony. The writer who previously couldn’t publish an article had a book that kept falling off the bestseller list because printers couldn’t keep up with demand. But what was it about the book that made it so compelling? It’s hard to see now, but The Feminine Mystique came out well before psychology was a hip way of examining social phenomena. And even though Friedan leaned heavily on academic research, hers was the first popular examination of women’s depressing post-WWII private lives. Friedan forced America to confront a problem it had all too happily ignored, and, as the New York Times put it, “the portrait she painted was chilling.” The book turned Friedan into an instant celebrity. She went on a nationwide publicity tour, appearing in televised press conferences and doing talk shows. But what the camera didn’t catch was all the heavy makeup Friedan wore to conceal her bruises and black eyes. Life at home had not gotten easier.

Leading the Revolution

Buoyed by her success, Friedan moved back to Manhattan and distanced herself from her husband. Her move coincided with a larger cultural shift, as the women’s movement began to coalesce around the country. Focusing on many of the issues raised in The Feminine Mystique, including sex discrimination, pay equity, and reproductive rights, second-wave feminists won major battles in courtrooms and offices over the next several decades. Sexual discrimination in the workplace was outlawed. Title IX was passed to ensure that girls and women would not be excluded from school athletic programs. Marital rape became a punishable crime. Domestic violence shelters were established for the first time. Contraceptives were made widely available. Abortion was legalized in the United States. As second-wave leaders bulldozed their way through the 1970s, women were finally allowed to sit on courtroom juries in all 50 states, to establish credit without relying on a male relative, and the enlistment qualifications for the Armed Forces became the same for men and women.

Friedan’s leadership was vital in the transformative years that followed her book’s publication. In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and campaigned vigorously for Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. And in 1969, a year history remembers as explosive and pop culture considers transcendent, Betty Friedan finally took her own words to heart—freeing herself from her loveless and abusive marriage.

In the ensuing years, Friedan remained involved in the women’s rights movement. She led the 50,000-person Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In the following decades, she helped found other notable women’s rights organizations, including the National Women’s Political Caucus. She wrote five more books. And by 2000, The Feminine Mystique had sold more than three million copies and been translated into numerous languages.

When Betty Friedan passed away on her 85th birthday, she was eulogized by NOW cofounder Muriel Fox, who said, “I truly believe that Betty Friedan was the most influential woman, not only of the 20th century, but of the second millennium.” Friedan had started a revolution by asking her friends and contemporaries the simple question no one had been bold enough to ask: Are you happy? And as she worked to answer the question for herself, she freed generations of women to come.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine in our ongoing "101 Masterpieces" series. You can get a free issue here.

A Nellie Bly Memorial Is Being Planned for New York City’s Roosevelt Island

The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nellie Bly, the 19th-century journalist renowned for her six-part exposé on Blackwell’s Island’s asylum in New York City—which she infiltrated by feigning insanity—will soon be honored with a memorial on the island itself, now called Roosevelt Island.

Her 1887 investigation, Smithsonian.com reports, uncovered cruel conditions for the female "lunatic" patients, like freezing baths, violence, and solitary confinement in rooms overrun with vermin. Its publication resulted in a series of improvements including increased funding, translator assistance for immigrants, termination of abusive staff, and more. It also facilitated a national discussion about the stigma of mental illness, especially for women.

All we know about the monument so far is that it’ll be some kind of statue—maybe a traditional sculpture, something more modern or even digital—and construction will take place between March and May of next year with a budget of about $500,000. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced an open call for artists to submit their designs, and by August 2, it will choose five finalists who will then create conceptual proposals for the memorial.

The monument’s precise location is still up in the air, too. It could be around the Octagon, the only remaining portion of the asylum building that now forms the entrance to a luxury apartment complex on the northern half of the island, or in Lighthouse Park, a 3.78-acre space at the island’s northern tip.

Portrait of Nellie Bly
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Until the mid-20th century, Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, was a rather undesirable place to visit. Along with the women’s asylum, it housed a prison, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, and a workhouse, The New York Times reports.

The city changed the name of the island (originally called Blackwell’s after the family who farmed there for generations) to Welfare Island in 1921. In 1935, it relocated the prison to Rikers Island (where it remains today). And in 1971, the city established a middle-income residential community on the island, renaming it Roosevelt Island, after Franklin Roosevelt.

Though Bly’s work in the island’s asylum may be her most famous, it was far from her only contribution to the worlds of journalism and industry. She also sailed around the world in 72 days, investigated baby trafficking, and ran her late husband’s manufacturing company. You can read more about her here.

“She’s one of our local heroes,” RIOC president Susan Rosenthal told The City about the choice to honor Bly. “The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

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