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.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
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This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

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2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

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You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

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These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

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6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

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At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

29 Prescient Quotes About the Internet from 1996

Many of the predictions made about the internet in 1996 were wildly accurate—and also quite funny.
Many of the predictions made about the internet in 1996 were wildly accurate—and also quite funny.
Evan Agostini/Liaison/Getty Images Plus

In 1996, the Web was young, but it was hot, and everyone was trying to figure out what it meant. While a lot has changed since then, here are 29 quotes from 1996 that were truly prescient.

1. On the future of America Online

“Ten years from now, America Online will have gone the way of the water-bed store,” Bruce R. Burningham wrote in a letter to the editor published in the January 14, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

2. On Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser

According to the September 16, 1996 issue of TIME, “It’s the browser your mom will use.”

3. On email

“Email is boring but good. Like pencils, it just works,” Tom Jennings told WIRED in April 1996.

4. A comparison to the past

In September 1996, Jim Barksdale, then the CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation, said that “the Internet is the printing press of the technology era.”

5. Cybersex vs. Bird-Watching

When a reader wrote to Ann Landers in June 1996 to emphasize the benefits of the internet—which the reader said they used for graduate research, as well as to attend bird-watching meetings and support groups—Landers responded, “Thanks for accentuating the positive, but I'm afraid more people are interested in cybersex than bird-watching.”

6. On dating online

In a February 1996 article in USA Today, Leslie Miller interviewed Judith A. Broadhurst, author of The Woman's Guide to Online Services. Broadhurst told Miller, “For better or worse, one of the most popular ways to look for a mate in the '90s is on-line … I heard from so many women who met their husbands on-line ... that I began to wonder if anyone meets in any other way anymore.”

7. On catfishing before catfishing was a thing

When one reader asked Dear Abby if he should pay for his (married!) online paramour from Australia to visit him in Michigan, she responded in a July 1996 column that, “It sounds like asking for trouble to me. Aside from the fact that you are carrying on with a married woman, Kate may not be what you expect. I recently heard about a teen who was communicating online with a female he thought was about his age; when they met, he found out she was a 76-year-old granny!”

8. On being addicted to the internet (a.k.a. “Netaholism”)

“Dr. [Kimberly S.] Young said that if alcoholism is any guide to Netaholism, between 2 percent and 5 percent of the estimated 20 million Americans who go on line might be addicted,” Pam Belluck wrote in the December 1, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

9. College and internet addiction

According to a piece in the June 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Tribune, “Universities are considered hot zones for potential Internet junkies because they often give students free and unlimited Net access.”

10. On losing access to your email

“Letting your e-mail address fall into the wrong hands isn’t exactly like having a maniacal stalker parked outside your front door,” the March 1996 issue of Spin noted. “But it’s close.”

11. On the potential of the internet

“These technologies are going to profoundly affect the way we perceive our humanity,” Anthony Rutkowski, “a de facto global spokesman for all things cyberspace,” told the Washington Post in February 1996. “We all have ideas to share and stories to tell and now we really can.”

12. On the ugliness of online behavior and content

“The people decrying the Net are using technology as a scapegoat for the fact that we haven’t, as a society, addressed these problems,” John Schwartz said in a November 1996 Washington Post article. “Yes, it’s a shame that there are pedophiles on the Internet. But the real horror is there are pedophiles in the real world and that pedophilia exists at all. ... Let’s face facts. To the extent that there’s a problem out there, it’s our society that’s sick—or at least, it has spawned a number of sick and broken people. The Internet, as the most personal medium ever developed, reflects that. I guess cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’”

13. On the internet’s “insidious seduction”

In the May/June 1996 issue of The American Prospect, Sidney Perkowitz wrote that “Aimless chat is the insidious seduction of the Internet; it can replace inward contemplation and real experience.”

14. On the internet in education

“The Internet has the potential to raise students’ sensitivity,” Diane Romm, one of the first librarians to use the internet, told The New York Times in June 1996. “Because it is international in its communication, people have to become more sensitive to the way what they say may be interpreted by people who come from different cultural backgrounds.”

15. On the virtual experience

“People can get lost in virtual worlds. Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not,” Sherry Turkle wrote in WIRED’s January 1996 issue. “Our experiences there are serious play. We belittle them at our risk. We must understand the dynamics of virtual experience both to foresee who might be in danger and to put these experiences to best use. Without a deep understanding of the many selves that we express in the virtual, we cannot use our experiences there to enrich the real. If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation.”

16. On trying to get people to pay for content online

“There's so much free content [online], it's going to be extremely hard to get people to pay,” Marc Andreessen told USA Today in February 1996.

17. On the decline of print

“I can imagine a not-so distant future when a sizable fraction of professional writers won't ever enter the world of print but will go directly from school to digital publishing,” Paul Roberts said in the July 1996 issue of Harper’s. “Maybe they'll be constrained at first by the needs of older readers who were raised on print and who have only recently and partially and timidly converted to the nonlinear faith. But in time, this will change, as printing comes to be seen as too expensive and cumbersome, as computers become more powerful and more interlinked, and as they show up in every classroom and office, in every living room and den.”

18. On distinguishing between content and ads on the internet

“Sometimes, surfing along on the World Wide Web, you can cross the line from content to advertisement without even knowing it,” Sally Chew wrote in New York Magazine in May 1996.

19. On the internet amplifying individual voices

“The Internet has become the ultimate narrowcasting vehicle: everyone from UFO buffs to New York Yankee fans has a Website (or dozen) to call his own—a dot-com in every pot. Technology will only quicken the pace at which news is moving away from the universal and toward the individualized,” Richard Zoglin said in the October 21, 1996 issue of TIME.

20. World peace versus loss of privacy

“The Web is a crazy quilt of both utopian and Orwellian possibilities,” Elizabeth Corcoran wrote in the Washington Post in June 1996. “Its fans make wide-eyed predictions of world peace and democracy even as privacy advocates say that it will destroy the notion of confidentiality in our home lives.”

21. On internet decryption

“As for encryption, the Government keeps trying to do what governments naturally do: control people. They would like to ban encryption [which scrambles and unscrambles information on computers] to make it easier for law enforcement to listen in on people,” Esther Dyson told The New York Times on July 7, 1996. “In principle, all they want to do is stop crime. But the fact is that encryption is defensive technology against big government, big business, big crime. I’d rather have defensive technology than leave the power to snoop in the hands of people I might not trust.”

22. On Corporate America exploiting the internet

“Technolibertarians rightfully worry about Big Bad Government, yet think commerce unfettered can create all things bright and beautiful—and so they disregard the real invader of privacy: Corporate America seeking ever-better ways to exploit the Net, to sell databases of consumer purchases and preferences, to track potential customers however it can,” Paulina Borsook said in the July/August 1996 issue of Mother Jones.

23. On interacting on the internet

“I think the importance of interactivity in online media can’t be overstated,” Carl Steadman, co-founder of early web magazine Suck—“an irreverent online daily”—told TIME in October 1996. “When I can cheerfully scroll past the cyberpundit of the moment’s latest exposé to the discussion area that features the opinions of true experts like myself and my hometown’s own Joe Bob, I’ll feel I’ve finally broken free.”

24. On using the internet for piracy

“As the Internet’s capacity for data transmission increases and multimedia technology improves, it will become as easy to copy music, photos and movies as it is to copy text now,” Steven D. Lavine wrote to The New York Times in March 1996. “How can government hope to prevent copyright infringement without encroaching upon individual privacy rights? It cannot. Content providers must accept the loss of those customers willing to pirate content and concentrate on packaging their products with enough value added so that wealthier customers remain willing to pay.”

25. On CD-ROMs

“CD-ROMs have become so popular that virtually all new desktop computers are shipped with the ability to use them. But by the turn of the century, CD-ROMs could themselves become unused relics, just like those old 5¼-inch floppies,” William Casey wrote in the July 22, 1996 issue of the Washington Post. “And why? The big ol’ Internet, as you might expect.”

26. On an extremely connected world

“Just wait, says Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold. Even your hot-water heater will become computerized and hooked to the Net,” Kevin Maney wrote in USA Today in November 1996. Myhrvold told Maney, “Anything that can be networked will be networked.”

27. On communicating on the internet

“How many times have you received a message on paper and wished you could send quick reply back to the sender?” Frank Vizard wrote in Popular Science’s December 1996 issue. “Motorola’s new PageWriter two-way pager lets you do exactly that—no need to connect to a telephone or computer as previous two-way pagers have required. To send a message, all you do is unfold a miniature keyboard and type in your text. [...] Just how big demand for the device will be remains to be seen.”

28. On the growth of the internet

“The Internet as we know it now will be quaint,” Timothy Logue, “a space and telecommunications analyst with Coudert Brothers in Washington,” told Satellite Communications in September 1996. “The Citizen’s Band radio phase died out, and the Internet is kind of in that CB radio state. It will evolve and mature in a couple of ways. It’ll be a global electronic city, with slum areas and red light districts, but it’ll also have a central business district.”

29. On the internet changing the world

We’ll leave you with a quote from Bill Gates, made in the September 16, 1996 issue of TIME: “The Internet is a revolution in communications that will change the world significantly. The Internet opens a whole new way to communicate with your friends and find and share information of all types. Microsoft is betting that the Internet will continue to grow in popularity until it is as mainstream as the telephone is today.”