- “To Fulfill an Ambition of [Her] Own”Work, Class, and Identity in The Feminine Mystique
It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon one of the most important books in American history. The Feminine Mystique is many things: a dystopian account of mid-1960s suburban life; a challenge to dependent wives to trade domestic self-abnegation for a more fulfilling version of the American dream; and above all, an eminently readable text. Among the book’s many achievements are Friedan’s empathetic and nuanced descriptions of the frustration that gripped many white middle-class women in the early 1960s. In the first paragraph, Friedan introduced us to her anonymous main character, the “suburban wife” who “made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies,” and lay anxious and awake next to her sleeping husband. The women we met in The Feminine Mystique felt trapped in a world where men monopolized positions of power and autonomy, and where their corollary duty was to sacrifice their own interests and desires in support of their families. Continually reminded of their privileged position while thwarted in their efforts to capture even a small measure of autonomy, these women were strung out, overextended yet understimulated, at once bored and exhausted, and eternally unfulfilled. With vivid prose, Friedan laid bare the dreadful double bind that ensnared her protagonists: they could not pursue “ambition[s] of their own” that would take them into the male-defined sphere without sacrificing their femininity. And in a world where a woman’s femininity was her currency, taking such a gender-defying risk could seem foolish, or even socially suicidal.1
Through these descriptions, Friedan forced her readers to face the injustices wrapped up in what she termed the “feminine mystique”: the phalanx of culture, expert opinions, and institutions that instructed women who were dissatisfied with their feminine roles to seek solace in ever more femininity. Yet an equally significant element of the book is Friedan’s proposed solution: a new [End Page 25] “life plan” for women whose centerpiece would be employment outside of the domestic sphere. But not just any work would suffice: part-time, pink-collar, and volunteer positions risked recasting women in subordinate roles. Instead, she encouraged women to pursue careers that reflected “the lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession.”2 To offset the domestic responsibilities that could handicap women as they scaled career ladders, Friedan called for more childcare and maternity leave options. In short, Friedan framed the pursuit of elite education and employment for women—especially in male-dominated fields—as the cornerstone of efforts to recast American gender relations. The benefits of women’s workforce advancement would radiate outward, she claimed. As women developed “independence,” “strength,” and “self-confidence,” they would forge more egalitarian marriages and transform American culture, thereby solving “the problem that has no name.”3
Historians have identified several biases and blind spots in The Feminine Mystique’s conceptions of work and class. In order to entice middle-class women to pursue employment as men’s equals, Friedan carefully packaged the white-collar workplace as a personally fulfilling meritocracy. In so doing, she deliberately downplayed both the critical waged labor women already performed and the systematic barriers to their equal workforce participation.4 For millions—especially working-class women and women of color—holding a job was not a choice but an urgent necessity.5 Further, by identifying flagging confidence as the major obstacle separating women from work that would enhance their lives, Friedan oversimplified both the problem and its solution. Any lack of self-assurance some women experienced was eclipsed by barriers forged beyond their internal lives: the gendered division of labor, disparities in status, pay, and mobility between jobs assigned to each sex, and the discouragement and outright harassment they faced in pursuit of male-typed work, to name just a few.6 By drawing a bright line between careers and other forms of employment, Friedan advanced gendered middle-class assumptions about what kind of work deserved respect and a good wage, even as...