The Most Privileged Life?

Friedan was, in other words, the kind of woman she wrote her book about. She was white and well educated; she had a financially dependable husband and a big house in a crime-free neighborhood; and she enjoyed the leisure to write, or do anything else she liked. The only expectations were that she manage the care of her healthy and well-adjusted children and be responsible for the domestic needs of her husband. By any material measure, and relative to the aspirations of most people, she was one of the most privileged human beings on the planet.

It is easy now to explain what was wrong with that existence—put simply: no matter how much she wanted, how hard she tried, or how qualified she was, Betty’s life could never be Carl’s—but it was not so easy to explain it when Friedan was writing her book. Apart from the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, there were no laws against gender discrimination as such. The word “sexism,” in its current meaning, did not exist. The most brilliant thing about Friedan’s very brilliant book was her decision to call what was wrong with the lives of apparently comfortable and economically secure women “the problem that has no name”—and then to give it a name.

“The Feminine Mystique” came out in the middle of a four-month newspaper strike in New York City, and it had to get the public’s attention at first without the benefits of newspaper advertisements or reviews . . .

More from Louis Menand at The New Yorker.

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