The 1963 publication of The feminine mystique by Betty Friedan (1921–2006) is certainly linked to, and sometimes considered the starting date of, the second wave of feminism in the US. Despite a lackluster “launch” by its publisher, the book quickly became a brisk seller in its hardback edition and went on to sell 1.5 million copies when it was issued in paperback a year later. The book remains available after a dozen republications, including one in 2001, more than forty years after it first appeared. Its title, a phrase that Friedan coined, has come to represent the accumulation of expectations attached to women, especially those that are dissonant and conflicting. Friedan called this liminal status, wherein women are dissatisfied but cannot quite identify why, as “the problem that has no name.”
In its time, the success of the book provided a platform for its author to claim for herself the role of the mother of the US women’s movement. For the purposes here, we may consider that the book helped establish the second wave in the US as a social movement that was largely dependent upon mass media attention for the distribution of its messages.
On a theoretical level, the subject of a mass-media product calling for social change emphasizes the notion, as explored by Frankfurt School theorists, of the difficulties, and perhaps the impossibility, of a capitalist economy promoting socio-economic change that challenges its own foundations. That The feminine mystique owed much of its style and substance to US mass magazines suggests its popularity was in part because it did not demand such systemic changes, the characteristic that was immediately noted when it was reviewed by a sociology journal. The book can also be explored from the perspective of the interpretation of individual readers, who brought their own backgrounds and experiences to the book. Nonetheless, however readers interpreted the book, its impact in the US was widespread and included a role as a starting place for many feminists of the period, including those who would later consider themselves to be radical feminists.
The intellectual influences on the book included Friedan’s personal background and her interest in Marxism, as well as the direct influences of ideas already articulated in Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex (1972, 1st pub. 1949), but the discussion here emphasizes a political economy approach in examining how the book was influenced by expanding media markets at the time. These influences included a publishing industry seeking to enlarge the market of suburban women readers; the role of executive women in paperback publishing; and an author who understood the demands of the emerging practice of book promotion and consciously emulated the style and substance of US women’s magazines. It should also be noted that republication of the book by the major British publisher Penguin helped distribute the ideas of the book to an international audience.
Postwar Feminism And Women’s Magazines
On an immediate level, The feminine mystique represented Friedan’s success in establishing herself as a freelance writer. In the midto late 1950s, she achieved moderate success in placing nonfiction articles, from “The coming ice age” for Harper’s Magazine (Friedan 1958) to “Women are people too” for Good Housekeeping (Friedan 1960), the article that represented many of the ideas developed in her subsequent book. As an experienced freelance, Friedan not only learned how to reach the magazine audience, but she also had learned the limits of mass media, as in a 1955 Redbook article on an interracial housing project, wherein an editorial pen had eliminated a reference to “Negro” families in favor of “people with the widest range of cultural differences” (Bradley 2004).
Still, in the period, the women’s service magazines were turning to concerns beyond domesticity. Although Friedan claimed in her book that women’s magazines unilaterally promoted women’s oppression, various communication scholars now suggest that postwar magazines represented to some degree the complex nature of changing ideas around women’s roles. In this respect, The feminine mystique was indebted to women’s magazines. Moreover, the book not only expanded upon the themes already present in such publications, but also used a magazine writing style familiar to readers. Friedan’s survey of her college alumnae, for example, likely resonated with readers familiar with magazine surveys. The book, in fact, represented a compilation of magazine strategies – the professional voice of the advice columnist, the anecdotal and other “proofs” of the nonfiction articles, the small but achievable steps presented by the self-help articles, and the epiphanies that routinely climaxed fiction. Moreover, as in the magazine article on the Arctic ice cap, her zeal to tell her story strongly led her to exaggerate or misinterpret social science evidence.
Friedan’s freelance writing career contrasts with her previous experiences as a radical journalist. In the 1940s, she was sufficiently involved in radical politics to draw the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1946, working for the left-oriented Federated Press, she covered the formation of the Congress of American Women, the American branch of a pro-Soviet organization, which, in its US context, took positions against racism and anti-Semitism, for equal pay for equal work, and for childcare facilities, and sought to include working-class women in women’s rights activities. In 1952, as a writer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, considered the most pro-communist of all American unions of the postwar period, Friedan wrote an unsigned pamphlet, UE fights for women workers, calling for an end to gender-based wage discrimination. “It is no accident that big business all over the world opposed the movement for votes and equal rights for women . . . the public acceptance of women’s equality would mean the loss of a huge source of labor they could segregate and exploit for extra profit and as a means to hold down the wages of all workers” (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers 1952).
She closed out her career as a radical journalist after marriage, children, and a shift of interest to paid, freelance writing. Perhaps unwilling to risk blacklisting because of the red-baiting McCarthyism of the period, she eschewed her earlier interest in systemic notions of female oppression when she came to write The feminine mystique. The book is significantly silent on societal analysis issues in favor of feminist promptings on an individualistic, woman-by-woman basis. In a book filled with personal anecdotes, none had to do with her own challenges to race and class. Feminism is framed as “the problem that has no name,” a phrase that better represented the general unease in Cold War America than feminist issues in particular. However, Friedan, ambitious for success in the mass marketplace, chose a framing that would comport with the demands of the field in the time it was written. As she would lecture and write in professional contexts, the secret of successful commercial writing was to explore a subject in ways that emphasized personal stories (Friedan 1962b; Bradley 2004).
Marketing Nonfiction Books To Suburban Women
Book publishers in the late 1950s sought to expand sales among the female suburban audience. Although bookstores in suburban malls offered easy access to book buying, suburban women were not regular book purchasers and were occasionally lumped with other “nonreaders” who needed to be enticed with specialized marketing. Doubleday Company hired the long-time women’s editor Margaret Cousins in the expectation that her knowledge of the women’s magazine market could translate into increased book sales to women. However, her collection of short stories culled from women’s magazine fiction, Love and marriage, failed, considered too traditional for the changing times. Following the cue of the women’s magazines, book publishers also considered nonfiction aimed at women’s interests as a possible approach that would appeal to women readers. Friedan’s article on “The coming ice age” (although disavowed by the scientists she interviewed for the piece) caught the eye of the W. W. Norton Company and led to an invitation to write a book prospectus.
The Feminine Mystique was not the only book on the subject of emerging feminism. However, its hardback US sales of 60,000 in its first year quickly overshadowed other entries and it became a national phenomenon when it sold l.5 million copies in paperback before its second edition. The book quickly went on to be published in paperback not only because of its strong hardback sales, but also because the paperback industry was seeking to enlarge its audiences by widening its lists beyond the romance and detective genres. Moreover, more women existed in the ranks of the less-prestigious paperback houses than in hardback publishing. This fact played an essential role at Dell, where women executives lobbied for publication of Friedan’s book. Under chief executive officer Helen Meyer, Dell paperbacks had already broken new ground in publishing books by women that transgressed traditional female genre boundaries – Francois Sagan’s A certain smile and the nine-million sale bestseller, Peyton Place. The feminine mystique quickly joined the Dell bestseller roster, prompted by its cheap price, the readiness of the audience for its messages, and, not an inconsiderable factor, Friedan’s understanding of book promotion.
At a time when many publishers still relied on the review process for book publicity, newer publishers viewed books as products to be promoted like any other commodity. At one extreme, Bernard Geis Associates only published books by celebrity authors who were likely candidates for the new television talk shows, or, failing that, books about seamy subjects that would elicit media interest. Geis published another major bestseller of the era, Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the single girl, promoted by Brown, another media professional, in ceaseless interviews (Bradley 2004).
Less attuned to the new trends, Norton provided a publicist for The feminine mystique only at Friedan’s angry insistence. On her own, Friedan engaged a booking firm for paid speaking engagements. When the book went into paperback, Friedan also turned to television, as in her two-part article for TV guide, “Television and the feminine mystique,” and on one of the new talk shows, Girl Talk. This latter appearance was considered strident and controversial, partly because Friedan demonstrated an inability, unlike her writing style, to adapt to the conventions of talk television.
Friedan’s ongoing efforts to remain a prominent media figure in the second wave of feminism contributed to the US mass media emphasis on defining feminist leaders in terms of stridency, a definition that was only furthered by Friedan’s argumentative role in the organized movement. Her ability to harness women’s dissatisfaction in an accessible way and to promote the book in popular venues accounted for the growth of the feminist message to women who otherwise may not have come to any sort of feminist understanding. Many anecdotal accounts exist in which women claim that reading The feminine mystique changed their lives (Friedan titled her second book It changed my life, based on the comment she most frequently heard). Many of these women formed the leadership base of various activist organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), and publications (such as Ms. magazine), and influenced legislative and social change.
However, it should also be noted that the popular and individualistic framing of feminism in the book set US feminism along a trajectory that necessarily involved the mass media at every step. At a time when it was believed that the mass media could be agents for powerful change, feminists on both the political left and right tended to take the messages of feminism directly to them for distribution. Once on the news agenda, feminism was subject to its craft traditions that often pitted feminism against antifeminists and emphasized their differences in negative ways that remain in the US culture today.
The feminist mystique had its greatest influence in the US, but its success helped make Friedan an international figure and, to some, the representative of US feminism in her subsequent travels. In the same year as its US debut, the book was published by the British publisher Victor Gollancz and by Penguin Books in 1965. Penguin’s worldwide distribution channels helped introduce the book to other English-speaking nations. It was translated into German and French in 1966 and later into Hebrew.
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