It’s been almost 60 years since Betty Friedan’s revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique came out. Published in 1963, it became a national bestseller and launched second-wave feminism in the United States, the feminism of the sexual revolution and employment reform.
Today, most American women say they identify with feminism. Why? Friedan’s book was revolutionary, but were her observations new? The history of American ambition and restlessness suggests they were not. In fact, these instincts are an enduring part of the American character and can help us understand American women—and feminism’s appeal.
Friedan depicted the American housewife of the 1950s and ’60s. This woman is said to be afflicted with the “problem that has no name,” which seems to combine feelings of loneliness, boredom, and restlessness. She finds domestic life insufficiently challenging and far from fulfilling, especially as children grow older and less dependent on their mothers. Such women are troubled by the prospect of underutilizing their talents and time.
Some of these sensibilities can be attributed to events and developments particular to that era. Rosie the Riveter had met the call of her country, only to be displaced (fairly or unfairly) by returning veterans. New technologies made housework less burdensome and time-consuming. And the invention of the television and the prevalence of advertising aimed at women encouraged romanticism and consumerism. You too can look like pin-up Betty Grable, run away with a Fabio, and keep up with the Joneses—or so women were told.
But not all the anxieties Friedan described were unique to mid-century American women. More than a hundred years earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a restless and ambitious spirit in Americans, born from a love of equality and made possible by prosperity.
Belief in equality animates American attitudes toward work, Tocqueville said. Democracies recognize no classes. Professions are not determined at birth (though some choose to follow the traditions of their fathers). All must earn a salary, so none feel shame for its necessity. In honest work, Americans find a measure of dignity and purpose. (Think of the popularity of Mike Rowe, who hosts Dirty Jobs and quips that, “opportunity usually shows up in overalls and looking like work.”) Moreover, such a society values profits; as Tocqueville wrote: “Equality not only rehabilitates the idea of work, it boosts the idea of work that gains a profit.”
It is perhaps understandable then that American housewives of the ’50s felt some insecurity (as some still do today) about not receiving a wage, though their work is invaluable. The results are less identifiable and tangible, not measured by a proportionate salary. A mother can change a diaper five times a day and be left with the same clean and healthy infant.
This belief in equality is a prominent source of American ambition and individualism. Americans aspire toward excellence and believe themselves capable of achieving it. Our principal limitation is not class but merit. “An immense and easy career seems to open before the ambition of men,” Tocqueville wrote, “and they readily imagine that they are called to great destinies.” So, when Friedan urged women to split atoms, penetrate outer space, create art that illuminates human destiny, and be pioneers on the frontiers of society, her call resonated. It appealed to her audience as Americans.
According to Tocqueville, this ambitiousness, along with our prosperity, makes us restless. Americans will build their dream house—and then sell it. We will master a profession only to change jobs. Any amount of leisure cannot be tolerated; an American will flee, in a hurried and abrupt manner, from the quiet and the settled “to distract himself better from his happiness.”
To these descriptions, Friedan added the middle-class American housewife. She realizes her personal dreams: education, comfort, stability, leisure, and family. And these gifts leave her restless. While there are similarities in Friedan’s and Tocqueville’s descriptions of the American character, their diagnosis of its causes differ. Friedan attributes American women’s restlessness to our womanhood, Tocqueville to our Americanism.
For Friedan, domestic life itself is the source of women’s discontent. She encouraged women to pursue self-actualizing careers and ushered in the second wave of feminism and the sexual revolution. Her answer was for women to become more independent and individualistic. There was some truth in her arguments and critiques.
But Tocqueville’s observations indicate that the origins of our discontent may be much more fundamental. The spirit of restlessness is sewn in the nature of democratic man (a spirit he perhaps first observed in men but has spread to women). Our prosperity cultivates a “taste for material enjoyment.” Our ambition makes us anxious to become “illustrious” and find comfort in this life before departing to the next. The ever-grasping modern American works in high finance to own a luxury car, dine at the trendiest restaurants, and live in an overpriced condo in New York City. He is spurred by rivalry, and salary is a measure of success.
There is nothing wrong with achievement or desiring reasonable comforts. Excellence is the refined end of competition. Yet we become restless when we discover that those temporal pleasures we strove so hard to obtain are not enough. It is noble to make sure your family is secure. But allowing work to transform you into an absent mother or father disrupts appropriate priorities. The cost is high when blind personal ambition comes at the expense of nearly everything else.
While American restlessness can be problematic, it can also be channeled into and checked by self-sacrifice and public-spiritedness. Americans have always felt an obligation to utilize their talents to serve their country and community, since a rich man, Tocqueville wrote, “would consider himself of bad reputation if he used his life only for living.” Instead, in ways that distinguish the United States from many other nations, a citizen of America sacrifices his leisure for civic engagement. It seems greedy and slothful to hoard not only material wealth but personal talents. The capable, gifted, and civic-minded are obliged to ensure the blessings of liberty not only for themselves, but also for posterity. In that, they find their vocation.
A vocation channels personal talents in the service of others, furthering the perpetuation of something greater than the individual. Doing so does not limit our ambition. It directs and ennobles it. George Washington, for example, was anxious to return to the comforts of Mount Vernon and private life after his first tenure as president. But he served a second term for his country because of, his fellow patriots observed, “a public spirit that reigned in [him] almost before there was any public to be spirited about.” His priorities were not the personal and the material, but the freedom and security of generations unborn.
Of course, many do not find their vocation in public life or a career. Their sacrifice is of a different kind, their higher purpose grounded in family, a purpose Friedan often devalued. Men and women will work in drudgery or take on monotonous and menial tasks for the sake of their children. It is a dignified undertaking, requiring a steady resolve born of the most selfless love.
Parents envision the life they want for their kids and work to earn their children’s future with their present sacrifices. A tedious job may mean the ability to pay for a private education outside of ideologically captured public schools, helping to protect and form kids’ characters. It could secure the financial resources necessary to move elsewhere in pursuit of a decent life. These are not trivial matters. They are decisions that form the next generation of citizens.
The American character is both the cause and solution to the “problem that has no name.” Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is not about women. It is about American women. Restlessness and ambition are part of who we are as Americans.
But we are also (or once were) public-spirited. That instinct urges us to deepen—not weaken—out commitments to country and community, to family and religion, to the transcendent over the temporal. In recovering this aspect of the American character, we find a partial remedy for our restlessness and a pathway to cultural renewal.
This piece originally appeared in the American Conservative