The second wave of the American feminist movement produced a lot of books. The Feminine Mystique, Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex—best seller followed best seller, each looking at how some combination of custom, law, and centuries-old ideologies led to the gendered divisions of labor and status that obtained in the US in the Sixties and Seventies: women concentrated in low-paying jobs or unpaid volunteer work, responsible for housework and childcare, largely absent from government and the upper and middle ranks of most industries and professions, making photocopies and coffee for radical men who made speeches.
Every ten years or so, publishers reissue these books with new introductions, and critics recommend them. But just try reading one. Some of their central insights have so thoroughly entered the mainstream of culture that they now seem obvious, while other claims have been qualified and corrected by successive generations. Either way, they seem trapped in their time. “After a few chapters I began to find much of it boring and dated,” writes historian Stephanie Coontz of reading The Feminine Mystique (which had been very important to her mother) for the first time as an adult. “It made claims about women’s history that I knew were oversimplified,” she continues, and Betty Friedan’s “generalizations about women seemed so limited by her white middle-class experience that I thought the book’s prescriptions for improving women’s lives were irrelevant to working class and African-American women.” Coontz writes this in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, in which she ends up complicating some of her own negative first impressions of The Feminine Mystique. Which suggests you may need to read (or write) a second book, one of historical exegesis, to appreciate a feminist classic.
During an interview a few years ago, I asked the essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick, who had been active in the movement, what she thought of those books today. “Oh, they’re unreadable now,” she shrugged, no trace of lament. “It’s like that with a lot of firebrand writing, you know. It’s hardly ever literature.” Yet, as Gornick has written, millions of people read the books, saw truth in them, and were moved to action: they marched or they made changes in their own lives or both, and collectively these actions moved their society closer to its egalitarian principles. Literature or not, the second-wave classics played their part in a kind of ideal meeting of reader and book.
The writer who invented the genre was neither a feminist nor an American. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in France in 1949 when she was forty-one years old. A few years later, its English translation would haunt and inspire Friedan, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone. When she wrote it, Beauvoir, a…
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