The “Feminine Mystique”–Then and Now, Part 1

Since you’ve set the stage with the story of how we met and began corresponding, Kimberly, I’d like to begin our dialogue with an excerpt from your May 11, 2008 email to me. You wrote:

I have been reading The Feminine Mystique this weekend. I am simply shocked at how relevant the message still is. I was also quite aware of these subtle and vague judgments I had towards the text as I picked it up, and how wrong those are proving to be. I think even as a feminist, I had internalized the media’s message that some of the leaders of the 2nd wave feminists were somehow anti-family, and that is not at all what I am seeing in Friedan. Even as a feminist, I have an unfair skepticism towards feminists, and I think other women my age might have a similar experience as me. I wonder if my generation has received or been socialized towards a very narrow and unfair view of the 2nd wave feminist movements? It might be interesting for you and I to write on our first experiences of this book. What did you feel when you read it in 1963? What am I feeling in myself as I read it in 2008? Just a thought. I am just very aware that what I have heard about the 2nd wave feminists is not what I am reading as I actually interact with this book firsthand. I think other women who have not read these primary texts, but who have heard negative stereotypes of feminists, might be able to benefit from my experience reading Friedan.

It’s fitting that you sent me that email on Mother’s Day, even though you hadn’t planned it that way. It’s so appropriate for starting our discussion, because competing ideas about motherhood were at the heart of the controversy that erupted when Betty Friedan’s book appeared on the scene.

You asked what I felt about it back then. (Coincidentally, in thinking through my response to your question, Kimberly, I realized that for the greater part of 1963, the year the book was published, I was exactly the same age you are now —27.) My life circumstances at that time were very different from yours, and I want to tell you a bit about that period because I think it will help you understand whyFriedan’s writing had such an impact on so many lives and institutions.

Friedan had dared to write about something that society refused to acknowledge —what she termed “the problem that has no name.” She was speaking of the emptiness, questioning, and yearning for something more that many of us women felt as we tried to live up (or down?) to society’s expectations. At that time, to question the carefully constructed vision of gender roles that many considered the basis of social order was a definite no-no. The United States was already experiencing upheaval over race and civil rights. Many people believed change equaled chaos and thought that social order required a place for everything and everything in its place—and that included women and racial and ethnic minorities. Girls and women were simply expected to accept the destiny that came with being born female and find their fulfillment there. You just didn’t question it. But some of us did. And the response and backlash to The Feminine Mystique showed the extent of that questioning in the months and years following its publication.

It’s probably hard for you to imagine how blatantly sex discrimination was promoted and applied in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It is usually much more subtle today. The classified ads of the 1950s and 1960s were divided into male and female “help wanted” sections. (Such sex-specific help-wanted ads became illegal with the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Even so, some newspapers continued the practice into the early 1970s.)

But laws were one thing; attitudes and customs were another. Women who aspired to work in jobs considered nontraditional for their gender were ridiculed. Cartoons poked fun at the idea of women becoming business executives, because it was thought that such leadership would be unnatural for members of the female sex. Women aspiring to enter the professions of law, medicine, and other careers requiring specialized education and training were often not taken seriously and their contributions were downplayed.

I remember watching an episode of the television show Candid Camera in which an interviewer was assigned to catch on camera the anticipated startled reactions of in-flight airline passengers upon being told that a woman was piloting the plane — as though it would be absurd and unnerving for such a thing to occur. I have an old newspaper clipping from 1968 in which it was announced that a 30-year-old Norwegian woman, Turi Wideroe, was actually accepted for training as a pilot for the large jetliners of Scandinavian Airlines. The photo caption announced, “She reportedly is the first woman to be accepted for such training by a major airline, and it is also reported she is the best looking pilot-trainee in the world.” The spotlight was turned to her appearance, regardless of her accomplishments —a problem still with us today.

If a woman wanted to use her education and talents beyond the home and family, she was often accused of “wanting to be a man.” Socialization made clear that males were the ones more highly esteemed and who were offered opportunities and choices closed off to females. No wonder many girls and women envied boys and yearned for such chances to achieve all they wanted to be and do. I remember a wordless cartoon panel in which a wide-eyed little girl sat at a table as her mother set a lighted birthday cake before her. The girl took a deep breath, made her wish, and blew out the candles. As the smoke cleared, the startled mother saw a little boy on the chair where her daughter had been.

An illustrated children’s book published in 1970 and found in libraries long afterward was titled, I’m Glad I’m a Boy; I’m Glad I’m a Girl. The reasons for this “gladness” was said to be in the contrasting roles each gender played. Boys were said to be strong, to become doctors, to be football players, to be pilots, to fix things and invent things. Girls were said to be gracious, nurses, cheerleaders, stewardesses, and to use the thing boys invented or fixed. One page said that “boys build houses, girls keep house.” Each gender was said to be glad for the other because the contrasts in roles showed they needed each other. Boys and men were expected to be society’s doers, while girls and women were expected to be helpers, encouraging and supporting the doers. Friedan showed how arguments from psychology, anthropology, and other fields were used to buttress this societal image to which women were expected to conform, an image she termed the “feminine mystique.”

By exposing what was happening to women as they tried so hard to conform to that image, Friedan had ignited a firestorm. If people in general were upset and angered, people in the religious world were outraged many times over. For those in the evangelical tradition especially, questioning traditional gender roles was considered rebellion against God.

Sermons, articles, and news commentaries began denouncing Friedan and other writers who were raising doubts about a person’s inevitable destiny based on gender. It was these that I read before I read The Feminine Mystique itself, which, as best I remember, I read in late 1964, more than a year after the book was published. By then, I was already speaking out and raising questions about Christians and gender roles.

But in the spring of 1963, most people who didn’t really know me would have thought of me as a highly unlikely candidate for challenging traditional notions of women’s roles in the home, church, and society. On the surface, they would have seen a dedicated young Christian wife and mother, married to a graduate student at the University of Oregon, and mother of two young boys, one a two-and-a-half-year-old, the other a just-turned six year-old, whom I was home-schooling as a kindergartner who would start public school in the fall. At the same time, I was writing Sunday school lessons and articles for Christian magazines; and my first book, Youth Looks at Love, had been accepted for February, 1964 publication by Fleming H. Revell, the same publisher that would publish Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman 10 years later.

I’ll tell you more about my story in another post; but for now, Kimberly, I want to hear your response to reading The Feminine Mystique as a young Christian woman in 2008. I’m eager to hear about how you think it continues to speak to today and where it does not.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


  1. Letha, I love the photo of you with your young sons… I didn’t know you at that time in your life.

    In this entry I recognize the friendly tone and breadth of information presented in a readable way that I remember from All We’re Meant To Be and your other books.

    It’s a delight to find you writing this way in this blog. For some reason I expected a more casual tone–but this writing is already fit for a longer publication.

    Bon voyage to “72-27″ in its first year !

    Anne E.

  2. October 5th, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    When I first went into ordained ministry in the 70’s there were many discriminatory barriars, and last week supporters of Sarah Palin were interviewed at church gatherings and said that as Christians it was okay for her to be a governor, but she could not be a pastor. I know things have changed but……….


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