Pish-Posh, Or The Most Important Book Of Our Century
Perhaps no book of the mid-twentieth century would prove as divisive as Betty Friedan’s seminal 1963 tome, The Feminine Mystique. Invited to conduct a survey on the satisfaction of fellow female graduates at a college reunion, journalist Friedan began an intent investigation into ‘the problem that has no name’, that is, a growing malaise amongst women who were seemingly living the American Dream. Credited with sparking the “second wave” of American feminism, the book proved a publishing phenomenon and became a flash point in the war over gender politics.
The papers of Betty Friedan, digitised from Harvard’s Schlesinger Library for AMD's upcoming resource Gender: Identity and Social Change, offer an exciting glimpse into the writer’s world. Original surveys conducted with female graduates of colleges (including her own alma mater, Smith) across the United States serve as raw data for Friedan’s arguments. Containing sensitive and private information on the lives of hundreds of women, great care has been taken to redact items within the collection in-keeping with archive standards. Nevertheless, honest answers on education, sex, work and marriage offer a deeply personal insight into women’s minds in the 1960s. Drafts of Friedan’s articles shed light on her progress, while letters from readers demonstrate popular opinion and the dichotomous reception her work received.
Historical hate mail runs the gamut from amusing to cruel in correspondence directed to Friedan after the publication of “The fraud of femininity”, an article in which she provocatively compared the suburban home to a concentration camp. Wrote one reader: ‘If American women are really as miserable as she says, maybe Russia should go ahead and drop the bomb and let us start all over’. Another would dismiss the eloquent article as ‘Pish-posh, Balderdash and hog-wash!’ Attacks on the writer often turned personal: ‘After reading this article I couldn’t help but picture Betty Friedan as selfish, cold, emotionless, and incapable of love.’ Another caustic response: ‘I had delusions of grandeur – I actually thought I was happy! […] Personally I think that Mrs Friedan should see a psychiatrist herself instead of writing lengthy articles directing other women to do so.’
An image of Friedan and her children found in FM. Original reader letters, 1967. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
At the other end of the spectrum, many women considered The Feminine Mystique to be a life-changing account. In a file marked "good letters", one woman penned the following: ‘Thank you for your book, Mrs. Freidan. I consider it a social landmark […] because of your hard work and commitment, many of our daughters and sons will live richer and fuller lives and make their contributions to a world so desperately in need of dedicated people.’ Another female reader highlighted the individual impact of the book, exclaiming that it ‘pinpointed my feeling of lack of identity and gives me courage’.
FM. Original reader letters: "good letters" 1963. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Though not universally popular, Friedan’s writings would become an important battleground over the coming decades, as one prescient correspondent surmised: ‘I just finished reading your book […] and I am convinced that it is the most important book of our century.’