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The Feminine Mystique at 50

Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, is 50 and there is a lot of talk about whether we still need to read it. In the book, Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes, Friedan named “the problem with no name,” the “depression, frustration, emptiness, guilt and dishonesty” experienced by mostly white, suburban, highly educated housewives. Like Friedan herself, many women who voiced dissatisfaction were told it was their problem. Get over it. Get on with the dishes and the vacuuming. Stop asking, “Is this all?”


Today, things are different, but how different? After decades of progress, we may be moving in a different direction.  In, “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” historian Stephanie Coontz claims:

But during the second half of the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s, the equality revolution seemed to stall. Between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of Americans preferring the male breadwinner/female homemaker family model actually rose to 40 percent from 34 percent. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of full-time working mothers who said they would prefer to work part time increased to 60 percent from 48 percent. In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.

This is not, Coontz argues, because men and women truly prefer inequality, but because the egalitarian ideals held by the majority simply cannot be realized:

Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.

Anyone who has tried to make a dual career marriage with children (or a single parent family) work knows the difficulty. Without paid family leave, flexible work hours, and a work culture that allows for the “spillover” of family needs into the work day (see Joan Williams’ Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do about It), it is extraordinarily difficult to care for children’s needs and provide what is expected at most jobs. Even though the family leave situation has improved since President Clinton signed legislation in 1993, and men now do more housework and childcare, and many work places are more accommodating, it is still hard to do it all.

Yet, I am not sure that we should worry about growing preferences for part-time work among parents. For those who are able to afford it, the increased flexibility that comes from fewer working hours can make a huge difference. Recognizing the difficulty of two full-time jobs, the late Protestant theologian Don Browning’s Religion, Culture and Family Project advocated a 60 hour work week shared between spouses in the early 2000s. Browning and his colleagues understood that cultural pressures would lead women to take on fewer of those 60 hours during child rearing years, but they advocated a flexible equality spread out over the lifespan. They hoped that the extra time parents spent at home would contribute to stronger marriages and better child rearing. If more couples are trying some version of this, that’s a good thing.

So is Friedan’s complaint obsolete? As a working mother who spent more time at home than the office from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, I don’t think so. When I first read The Feminine Mystique, I was home with my first child, wondering if I would ever land a full-time job. The line, “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own,” rang true to me. Though I would never trade the time I spent with my kids, I also cherished the hours I had to read and teach and write theology.

Not everyone finds creative work in a career. Some find it volunteer work, homeschooling, art, or gardening.  But it seems important to find it. For Christians that creative work is a vocation or charism. It work to which we are called by God, work we do not simply for ourselves but for others. Family care, too, is a vocation, and it’s much harder and more fulfilling for most than housework. Still, having space for creative work, a room of one’s own whether physical or mental, allows one to return to dishes, laundry, and meeting other people’s needs without resentment. Having no such room can make one feel less alive. As critics have long pointed out, this is (mostly) a problem of privilege, but it’s still a problem. Friedan was right to call our attention to it. If we’re still looking at shopping, carpooling, and cupcakes, asking, “Is this all?,” that’s not such a bad thing.



  1. Julie – Thanks for this post. I think you’re right that Friedan’s complaint is not obsolete and you’re echoing some of the same discomforts that I have regarding workplace and family interactions.

    Some of the additional questions I have, based on what you’re saying about Coontz’s work are these:
    1) Is some of the increase in desire to stay at home a result of a generation that had more mothers work outside the home and found dissatisfaction with their own childhood?

    2) Is some of the increase a result of the changing nature of jobs? It’s one thing to have a job one considers fulfilling (being a professor certainly is for me) – and that utilizes creativity and all that kind of thing. It’s another to be doing a job that you consider to be unchallenging, or that fosters a hostile work environment (and not necessarily for gender) – and the trade off (a meagre salary that mostly pays for child care) isn’t good enough to want to stay in that kind of job. In addition, newspaper accounts of a changing job scene seem to suggest that the workforce is changing so that people have more work to do (sometimes the work of 2-3 other people who have not been replaced due to layoffs) and are overworked.

  2. I am sorry I am late to this post but thank you Julie for writing it. I too am curious about Jana’s number one. Do more women want to stay at home because they want to be the mother to their children that they never had?

    One of the things about being a working mom is that when you see your kids, it is often after after-school, talking in the car on the way to baseball or to the grocery store, getting dinner and baths done, and then putting the kids to bed. The leisure of watching your child play for half an hour (or playing with her) or talking while you go on a long walk are activities that a lot of working moms don’t have time for. Especially as kids get older, it takes time to talk to them, to discover what is going on in their lives, to find out about their fears and anxieties. I know a lot of women in my generation would have never talked to our mothers about these things when we were tweens and teens, but for many of us, it was because we saw our mothers for max two hours a day. We saw teachers and coaches more than parents.

    The temptation to stay home is the temptation to provide opportunities for relationships with your children that are really hard (if not impossible) to develop as a working mom, especially a working mom with a stressful job.

    The other thing I wonder about with working moms is their marriages. So many of my generation grew up in households where both parents worked and many of the households ended in divorce. I don’t know the data so I am speculating but for parents who have two jobs between them (especially fulfilling but also stressful jobs) and a couple of kids that demand attention, where is there room to do the work necessary to make the marriage succeed? Marriages don’t just happen. Spouses need to talk to each other, be with each other, celebrate and mourn with each other. With two jobs, school for the kids, extracurriculars, and ordinary household work, where does the marriage happen?

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