Feminine Mystique or Mistake: Men Make Fun of Women for Having Feelings, Then Dismiss Charges of Discrimination

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The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, first published in 1963.

"Is the Feminine Mystique a Mistake?" is the question posed at the beginning of this 1966 edition of Maincurrents, hosted by Lee Graham.

The panelists are Candy Jones, at that time known for her work as a model and as a "fashion and grooming expert"; Marlene Sanders, then one of the few female TV news correspondents; Gloria Steinem, described by the (female) host as "a very pretty freelance writer"; Peter Wyden, editor of The Ladies Home Journal; and Max Sapan, an ad agency executive. 

The place of women can fall into one of three categories, Ms. Graham suggests: The Betty Friedan school, in which every woman should get a job; the Demi-Feminine Movement, which advocates that women maintain their domestic presence but do part-time community service ("preferably unpaid") as well; and the Freudian school, which states that a woman's place is in the home.  Wyden contends that the lumping of all women together this way isn't helpful. He sees the discontent of women in today's society as "the restlessness of the native." Men don't suffer from this as much because they don't have as much free time, whereas stay-at-home wives "get hysterical." Sapan claims "the core of the problem lies with the woman herself. The woman does not know that she's a woman." This provokes a mix of laughter and disbelief from the women. Jones does agree that all women are different and that if a woman doesn't want to work she shouldn't have to. She, however, has been working since age 16. Sanders complains of working women being made to feel guilty for leaving their children and neglecting the housework. Steinem agrees that perhaps an unintended consequence of The Feminine Mystique is making many women who don't want to work feel like they must. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir to the effect that if one does not have a métier, work is not particularly meaningful. She then suggests that Betty Friedan is "old-fashioned," and that the taboo against women working is "not as big a problem as before." However, when it's suggested that the influence of The Feminine Mystique is overrated, that it is being puffed up solely by the media, she refers to the enormous response the book's publication has received, indicating that "it must be speaking to a problem which exists." But what, Wyden complains, "does poor old Dad do when he's hungry or thirsty or doesn't have his laundry?"

In this fascinating historical snapshot of the early days of feminism, one can see the germs of truth that led to many a stereotype. The men are snide and condescending -- one of them persistently uses the term "Dear Lady" instead of learning their names -- while the women are earnest to the point of humorlessness. There is, however, a shared sense of acknowledging some groundswell, if not earthquake, and an agreement that change is underway in the fundamental and until recently unquestioned parameters of male-female relations. What's perhaps most interesting in retrospect is seeing how what was then considered a right to be fought for (a woman entering the job force) is now more often considered a duty. Work is no longer viewed as the panacea to feelings of frustration, as it is portrayed here, but more often seen as yet another cause. 

Jones (1925-1990) went on to become a well-known late-night radio host along with her husband, Long John Nebel. Their program dealt with tales of UFOs and the paranormal. In later years she became known for her claims that the CIA had hypnotized her and sent her on secret missions, which they then wiped from her memory.

Sanders (b. 1931) continued to have a distinguished career in broadcast journalism. She was the first woman to cover the Vietnam War, the first woman to anchor a national news cast, and the first woman to be named vice president of ABC News. She is the mother of Jeffrey Toobin, the well-known CNN legal analyst.

Wyden (1923-1998) went on to write several non-fiction books, notably Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story (1980), which won the Overseas Press Club Book Award, and Conquering Schizophrenia: A Father, His Son and a Medical Breakthrough (1998) about his attempt to care for his son Jeffrey, who suffered from mental illness. Another son, Ron Wyden, became senator from Oregon in 1996.

Steinem (b.1934) began her career as a journalist but quickly transcended that label to become one of the leaders of the women's liberation movement. She first made a splash by writing an article about getting hired as a Playboy Bunny. Her 1969 article "After Black Power, Women's Liberation," defined, for many, the path the Women's Movement was to take in the coming years.  In 1972 she co-founded Ms. magazine. Since then she has become a political as well as a social commentator, not confining her causes to questions of gender but branching out into speaking against the death penalty, economic injustice, and racism. She claims her agenda, as quoted in the website womenshistory.about.com:

…really is a revolution. Sex and race, because they are easy and visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor in which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.