Why Betty Friedan Threw the Body Out With the Bathwater


Fifty years after its publication, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique continues to influence how women think about what “makes them tick.”  Friedan got a lot right, but with decades of hindsight, it’s easy to see she got some things wrong, particularly her outright rejection of the impact of hormonal shifts on female experience.

Friedan’s book catapulted the Women’s Movement into the public eye. She identified the “problem that has no name”: the boredom, depression and empty lives of educated women who had given up careers to care for home and children. Post-war generation wives and mothers responded powerfully to Friedan’s observations.

Friedan raised challenging questions about psychoanalytic views of female development and psychology, then in vogue, and the ways these views kept women “in their place.”  She was instrumental in setting female psychology on a different course–in some good ways, as well in others that have been less helpful.

When The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the classical Freudian view of female development was still the accepted wisdom: anatomy is destiny, and normal female development includes penis envy, faulty super-ego development, masochism and passivity. Friedan correctly pointed out how these theories kept women in a submissive role relative to men.

However, Friedan went on to dismiss the importance of ovarian hormones and the menstrual cycle on a woman’s identity, mood and thought processes. Friedan’s mission, or one of her missions, was to assert there was no meaningful difference between men and women, that anatomy is immaterial.

Betty Friedan’s work became very relevant to me while I was researching the topic of menopause, an endeavor prompted by the onset of my own.  I noticed how little was written on the subject, and that women rarely spoke about their physical and psychological suffering.

Surprisingly, Friedan thought menopause inconsequential.  If a woman has a meaningful life, menopause should be a non-event. She believed that only women whose identity and self-worth were tied to being a wife and mother, and for whom, therefore, youth and sexual attractiveness are all-important, would find menopause difficult. Other hormonal emotional experiences, such as pre-menstrual tension and post-partum depression, she similarly refused to recognize as physiologically determined.

Friedan, and many other feminists who are now in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, espoused the view that the miseries of menopause are solely a consequence of the repressive Freudian environment Friedan detailed in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan went so far as to say that menopause didn’t really exist—it was invented by the pharmaceutical companies!

What was wrong with me, I wondered? I had a career and meaningful relationships but found menopause disorienting and painful. The changes in body image, the physical discomfort, mood swings, insomnia all made me wonder, “Who am I?” and “What am I becoming?”  According to Friedan, I should have been immune to this distress because of career and meaningful interests outside the home.

I invited Friedan in 2005 to speak at a conference on the topic “Is There Menopause?” to explain her views.   Friedan initially agreed, but her failing health prevented this. She did, however, allow me to videotape an interview to be screened for attendees. She died soon after the interview. Click to view video.

On January 12, 2005 I went to Friedan’s apartment. I had sent her a list of questions in advance of the interview: Have women’s reactions to menopause changed since you wrote The Feminine Mystique?  Do women experience it the same now as they did in 1963?  Do you think menopause changes the way a woman sees herself?  Does it change her identity?

Friedan became increasingly annoyed, and even hostile, as I asked my questions.  The very word “menopause” irritated her. Menopause does not exist—and shouldn’t be talked about.  I persisted with my questions until she finally yelled, “What the fuck are you asking me?” Questions about “aging” were OK with her, so long as I didn’t use the word “menopause.” Men and women both age, but only women are alleged to go through menopause.

At the conference, along with the Friedan interview videotape, I presented my own paper on the impact of menopause on a woman’s identity. Much to my surprise, several feminist psychoanalysts, 10 to 15 years older than I, approached me afterwards warning me that this was a dangerous topic, a slippery slope and that I should perhaps discontinue talking about it.

The dangerous topic is not menopause—it is the acknowledgement that female hormones make women feel and behave differently from men.  Historically, a focus on the female body, ovarian hormones and the menstrual cycle has been used to stigmatize women as moody, flighty, and unfocussed. As such, they should not hold positions of power. If a woman was president, she might start a nuclear attack while suffering from PMS!

My female friends and I, all Baby Boomers, were the benefactors of the changes brought about by the Women’s Movement. We assumed we’d have careers, or at least imagined the possibility. Now in our 60s, most of us do have careers and families.  We’ve gone through menopause, but didn’t sail through it the way Friedan predicted. Not at all!

So while we should be immensely grateful for Friedan’s potent critique of that which oppressed women, I believe it is important that a complete understanding of the female experience include recognition of the significant effect of hormones on a woman’s body and psychological functioning. Rather than denying or dismissing the impact, let’s acknowledge and appreciate the range of experience with which hormones endow women.