Dangerous Books

By Nancy Jane Moore

The Feminine MystiqueWhen I was researching my post for Banned Books Week, I stumbled across a list labeled “The Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries” on the website for the publication Human Events.

Book number 1, predictably enough for a right wing group, was The Communist Manifesto. It came substantially ahead of Mein Kampf at number 2, indicating that the listmakers were more afraid of radical economics than of racist hate.

But while I expected to find condemnation of communist theory and Hitler on such a list, I was a little shocked by the rest of the books. Still, in one way it was like many other lists of books I’ve run across: heavy on male authors. Only one book by a woman was considered sufficiently harmful to be included: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It came it at number 7.

I immediately raced over to the library to get a copy.

I was familiar with the book and the phenomenon it documented, of course. I just hadn’t read it. By the time I was seriously reading feminist theory in the 70s, it was considered old hat. Anyway I had a pretty good grasp on the anti-feminist 50s from my mother, who got slighted on her jobs and was treated with contempt by the wives of my father’s friends because she worked.

But in reaction to this year’s political season — which has included serious candidates who are not only anti-abortion, but anti-contraception and generally anti-women — I’ve been reading and re-reading significant feminist books. I decided it was time I read this one. After all, it was the spark that changed a lot of lives.

To tell you the truth, I found it rather mild. The first part of the book, with its description of the trapped lives of housewives in the suburbs, moved me to rage, and was probably what caused so many “Aha” moments among U.S. women.

But I got tired of Friedan’s Freudian explanations. Freud may have been the gospel of the time, but he sounds awfully dated today. She does explain that his ideas about “penis envy” came about because he, like most social scientists, “was a prisoner of his own culture.” As any person not trapped in a similar culture warp knows, what women envy about men is their privilege, not their sexual organ.

And her slams on young people left me cold, even if she did blame their weaknesses on women who had no lives outside the home. But then, I get tired of the older generation talking about how the younger one is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. I didn’t buy the criticism of my generation when I was young and the current attacks on young people (too much texting! no staying power!) don’t comport with the people I know in their teens and 20s.

Plus throughout the book it often sounded like she was blaming women for this situation, criticizing them for betraying the feminists who had gone before them. Yes, she gave examples of men being ridiculous, and yes, I agree that the solution to much of sexism is for women to refuse to play along, but there were a number of systems that stuck women in the housewife role. Graduate programs didn’t admit them, employers didn’t hire them — every woman lawyer I ever met from that generation has a story about being offered a job as a legal secretary upon graduation from law school — day care was all but non-existent, and a lot of discriminatory laws were still on the books.

Basically, Friedan encouraged women to use their education and not settle for being “just a housewife.” She wrote:

We need a drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity that will permit women to reach maturity, identify, completeness of self, without conflict with sexual fulfillment.

Women as whole, mature human beings with work they believe in and a good relationship to boot. Sounds good to me. Really, how can any sane person object to that?

The criticism on the Human Events list doesn’t get into specific arguments with the book, preferring instead to attack Friedan by claiming she was a “left-wing journalist” instead of a housewife. Since she acknowledges her freelance writing career in her book — though she apparently wrote mostly for women’s magazines, then as now not exactly a hotbed of radicalism — I don’t see this as very effective. They take more issue with who she was than with what she said, which is not a good way to start a dialogue.

And if the Human Events folks actually think what she said was dangerous extremism, boy, have I got a reading list for them!

But then, the rest of their list is equally odd. They seem to condemn people out of hand for secular opinions. They fault John Dewey’s Democracy and Education — which I read and used in my undergraduate thesis — because he “rejected traditional religion and moral absolutes.” They seem to have the same objection to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, which I’ve read bits and pieces of.

But maybe the most suprising book on the list is number 10: General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes. Given that recent events have once again proved the correctness of  Keynesian theory, it seems odd to see people still condemning the man.

I haven’t read Keynes directly, but probably I should. In fact, I’m inclined to take the list and the honorable mentions (which include Charles Darwin, Simone de Beauvoir, and Rachel Carson) as a guide, re-reading the ones I read when I was young and trying the others.

Well, except for Mein Kampf. I do agree with Human Events that fascism is harmful. Though I wouldn’t ban it. I wouldn’t even ban Human Events, though I confess I do hope they soon wither away into irrelevence.



Dangerous Books — 10 Comments

    • I’m reading Dewey at the moment, but I’ll make sure to get some Darwin. I’ve read a lot about evolution — most recently David Sloan Wilson’s excellent Evolution for Everyone — but I should go back to the source.

  1. In terms of its effect, The Feminine Mystique may be one of the great Dangerous Books of all time.
    It remains deeply problematic: it tends to the structural rather than the individual solution, is allergic to lesbians, and has no idea how many Black/Working Class women actually worked (to give her credit, neither did most sociologists, in part because they were reclassifying Black women as “not exactly what we mean” and in part because aspirational women rarely talked about their “just a few hours doing x” as work).

    • In re-reading my post, I decided I didn’t emphasize enough just how powerful the book was for women in the early 1960s. I can imagine the “aha” moment I would have had if I had been a housewife reading it in 1964. It certainly had a major effect and I suppose if one was committed to keeping women’s lives severely limited, it would be a dangerous book. But in a time when the women Friedan wrote about do get a chance to use their educations and build careers, it seems rather quaint to still consider it dangerous.

  2. We don’t realize how far we’ve come in one generation. When my mother became pregnant with me she immediately lost her job, as a matter of course. When I was looking for my first job the newspaper want ads were still organized into “men” and “women” columns — at least the “Negro” classification was gone.
    My son has organized the household into a marathon of MAD MEN watching, and the appalling conditions of female workers is a consistent theme.

    • I tend to see Mad Men as almost a documentary about sexism in the 50s and 60s.

      BTW, the minimum wage for women was less than that for men back when the jobs were separated by gender. I don’t think that was legal after the Civil Rights Act passed, but it took awhile to get it fixed.

  3. That list anathemizes major philosophical challenges to the authority of wealthy white male Christians. Keynes is considered socialist, that’s why he’s on that list, though Keynesian policies are not advocated by any socialist group that I am aware of. On the other hand, Keynes argued for “a somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment,” so there is a case to be made that Keynesian polices are in some sense socialist.

    Over, I think, to Corey Robin.

  4. I highly recommend Stephanie Coontz’s book “A Strange Stirring” which explores the reactions and effect of “The Feminine Mystique” I love Coontz’s work.