In the Introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, “It’s frightening when you’re starting on a new road that no one has been on before. You don’t know how far it’s going to take you until you look back and realize how far, how very far you’ve gone.”

Indeed. Forty years after that statement and 50 years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the road that Friedan embarked upon has led women to places they have never been before—entering the workforce and academia in ever-higher numbers, yes, but also historically low fertility rates, no-fault divorce, and abortion on demand. The emotional consequences for women have not been rosy. Stevenson and Wolfers report that, in spite of the fact that all objective measures of women’s happiness have risen, both women’s subjective well-being and their well-being relative to men have fallen since the 1970s. For the first time in the last 35 years, men report higher levels of happiness than do women.

Friedan’s diagnosis of “the problem that has no name”—women’s sense of purposelessness—was justified, but her prescriptions have been disastrous. The road that Betty Friedan and second-wave feminists paved has led women to lives new and unfamiliar, but not to a solution to the problem. In following the impact of feminism through three broad categories of the life cycle—education, child-bearing years, and the empty nest—we see that the promises of feminism have fallen flat, as women have bought into a feminist mystique that has left them more alone and conflicted in their pursuit of fulfillment than ever before.


Friedan oft laments what she calls the “sex-directed education” of women. Women, she discovered when interviewing college girls to write her book, embark upon higher education primarily to meet a man and cannot be bothered with academic pursuits. Friedan professes herself to be horrified. When she was in college, she writes, women used to linger outside the classrooms for hours, debating war, marriage, sex, art. Women of 1963 were too occupied painting their nails and keeping dates to bother with the end of Western Civilization.

Friedan argues that women have reached this stage because they have been long trained that their primary purpose is sexual. High-school and college curricula have become increasingly “functionalist,” oriented toward a woman’s sexual function of bearing children.

Friedan’s answer is an education that prepares women for a meaningful career outside the home. Women should go to college not for some vague liberal arts degree, but for a degree that sets them on a specific career path. For this to happen, she says, they must learn to explore their sexuality outside of marriage. And although she does not say it, the implicit lesson is that girls must learn that denying their fertility is a necessary step to success.

Women have learned their lesson only too well. We face now a new “sex-directed education,” one that explicitly tells young girls that they are sexual beings expected to engage in intercourse before marriage and also expected to protect themselves from the hazards of an unwanted pregnancy. This new sex-directed education is enforced by a variety of the nation’s most reputable bodies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement recommending that doctors prescribe emergency contraceptives like Plan B in girls’ early teens, before they actually become sexually active. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that children (boys and girls) receive the HPV vaccine as young as 11 or 12.

The educators are doing their job well, as is seen in current levels of contraception use. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 61.8 percent of women ages 15-44 use some form of contraception, and 98 percent of women who have ever had intercourse have used contraception. Of these, the more educated the woman, the more likely she was to “protect” herself, with daughters of college graduates the most likely to use contraception at first incidence of intercourse (83.9 percent). Yet in spite of all of this contraception, a staggering 41 percent of births in 2011 were to unwed mothers. Women have more chemical and mechanical means than ever before to keep themselves from bearing children, and yet, almost half of babies are born outside of wedlock. The implication is clear: Sex and marriage no longer go together, and so, babies and marriage no longer go together, in spite of the fact that research overwhelmingly shows marriage to be the best environment for raising children.

In promoting no-strings-attached sex, this new sex-directed education has both prevented marriages from occurring and damaged the marriages that do occur. A recent study has shown that women who have sex before marriage increase their chances of divorce, and those who have sex before the age of 18 double their odds of a split. Women are being educated to be sexually active before marriage, told that the best way to ensure a career is to postpone marriage and children. To do so, they subject their bodies to one of a number of chemical or surgical procedures, while engaging in behavior that endangers their future marriages.

The functionalists may no longer write the curriculum, but we still have a “sex-directed education,” one that is far more damaging than any functionalist text ever was.

Child-bearing years

Once they reach adulthood, Friedan argues, women of 1963 took pride in checking the box for “occupation: housewife” on the US census. A cult of femininity and motherhood had developed whose design was to keep women in the home. At the same time that women chose “occupation: housewife” as their calling, however, that occupation was becoming less and less fulfilling. Friedan accurately notes the rise of the consumerist household: “Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house. In all the talk of femininity and woman’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business.”

The home was no longer a place where a woman felt useful. The state had taken over the education and care of her children for the majority of most days. Her husband spent all his waking hours in an office or shop miles away. The home did not produce anything. Friedan’s solution to the increasing irrelevance of the American home was for women to leave it, just like men did. Seek meaning in a useful vocation, she advised. Hire help to care for the children and do the cleaning.

Women have taken her advice, leaving home and children to the care of others in ever-increasing numbers while searching for more fulfilling lives elsewhere. But those careers, it turns out, are not as meaningful as they had hoped, and most women still cannot squelch that maternal instinct that drives them to want to bear and care for children more than anything else in the world. Kay Hymowitz argues in “The Plight of the Alpha Female” that “women are less inclined than men to think that power and status are worth the sacrifice of a close relationship with their children.” Women, she says, generally prefer being with their children to spending their days in boardrooms and conference calls.

Hymowitz reports on a longitudinal study of Booth School of Business graduates at the University of Chicago. The study found that although these new graduates began their careers in equal numbers and earned roughly equal salaries, half of the women had quit in ten years. Ninety percent of the men remained in the workforce. These women, among the best and brightest in the business world and probably well able to afford childcare, chose to leave profitable careers to stay home.

Hymowitz also points to some interesting statistics that indicate that women still tend to plan their most intense career-pursuing years around the possibility of having a child. A recent survey of students conducted by University of Wisconsin psychologists showed that most female students were already thinking about ways to cut back their work hours once they became mothers. Similarly, a recent survey of 1,000 mothers conducted by Forbes revealed that while only 10 percent of stay-at-home mothers wished they still worked, about half of working mothers wished they could stay at home. Study upon study has indicated that most women want to have children, and most women who want to have children want to stay home with them or at the very most work part-time.

This reality is emphasized by the very few number of what Hymowitz calls female “alphas”—those at the very top of any given career path. Of Fortune 500 company CEOs, only four percent are women, and Hymowitz argues that this represents women’s choice to avoid such careers more than anything else. The same goes for politics—men are still the overwhelming majority in both the Senate and the House.

While the data indicate that women still want to have children and want to stay home with them, however, the stark reality is that fewer women are having fewer children. The mean age of first birth in the US is a bit over 25 years, according to the US Census Bureau, while the preliminary data for 2011 indicates that birth rates for women ages 30-34 are actually higher than birth rates for women ages 20-24. The overall US birthrate, however, is at an all-time low of 63.2 per 1,000 women, ages 15-44—a total fertility rate of 1.9. Women are either foregoing children or pushing back childbearing until late ages.

What the data do not show is how many of those women, ages 15-44, would have liked to have children after delaying childbirth into their 30s. Recent mathematical models have estimated that by 30 years of age, 95 percent of women have only 12 percent of their eggs remaining. As later childbirth has become more popular, so have reproductive technologies such as IVF, technologies whose health impact upon both child and mother are still relatively unknown. Ironically—and sadly—women discover that the high-powered career is not that important to them, while perhaps simultaneously discovering that their fertility is not as buoyant as they had hoped.

The other group in the category of career-minded women are those who manage to have children, but also believe they can “have it all”—in the words of Anne-Marie Slaugher’s recent piece in the Atlantic that reignited debate over the compatibility of family life and a high-powered career.

More women are acknowledging that “having it all” is a delusion, because the lingering reality is that most women still feel a sense of guilt about leaving children for long hours, guilt that men simply do not feel at the same levels. Those women who choose to try to juggle a 60-hour work week with soccer practice, school, and music lessons find themselves torn between two worlds, facing inner conflict that leaves them unsatisfied with their roles. Predictably, those women who do attain the “alpha” jobs are more likely than women in the general population to be childless.

The Empty Nest

In interviewing her subjects, Friedan found that many housewives lived in fear of what would happen when the babies were gone. One purportedly told her that she envied her neighbor, an interior designer: “She knows what she wants to do. I don’t know. I never have. When I’m pregnant and the babies are little, I’m somebody, finally, a mother. But then, they get older. I can’t just keep on having babies.”

The contemporary American woman faces perhaps an even starker reality. In 1963, the average woman still had babies. Lots of babies. When she was older, she may still have at least one or two of those children living nearby, and probably a few grandchildren as well. Now, however, with the age of first child rising and the overall birth rate declining, women are increasingly alone in a vulnerable stage of life. With five children, one or two might have stayed close to home. With two, the chances of having a child living nearby dwindle. The children a woman does have are likely postponing their own family as well, denying Mom and Dad both the health and emotional benefits of caretaking.

In addition to being childless, the baby-boomer female is increasingly likely to be divorced. Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin have shown that while the divorce rate for the population at large has remained essentially the same over the past 20 years, divorces have doubled among adults aged 50 and older—so-called “grey divorces.” Most of these divorces stem from remarriages that have fallen apart, as remarriages are much more likely than first marriages to dissolve. What the rise in divorce among this generation means is that all the health, emotional, and economic impacts of a divorce hit women in a stage of life of great transition, when overall health is more likely to be declining. For women in particular, who are much less likely than men to have had a career and consequent savings, the economic impact may be severe.

At the very time of life when a woman should be able to rest and enjoy the fruits and fulfillment of a life well-lived, then, while still being of some use to her family, she finds herself increasingly isolated. If she is like most women, she has not allowed herself to develop a career to the same level as do men, because she wanted to be around for her children when they were growing. The result is that she has not given herself wholeheartedly either to career or to childrearing. Now, in the so-called Golden Years, she has little purpose in life, no comfort in either work or family.

After Friedan

The problems that Betty Friedan outlined were real. Industrialization and the consumerism of the 1950s meant that the American household was reduced to little more than a comfortable hotel, where people slept and perhaps ate a meal or two while conducting their real work elsewhere. Little surprise that women felt stifled and unfulfilled by the role of glorified purchaser. And for Friedan, self-fulfillment was paramount. Women could not be “fulfilled,” she believed, unless they held meaningful paid employment. The home was no longer enough to provide fulfillment. But what do these women who have followed Friedan’s advice—divorced, childless, grandchildless—have to show for their “self-fulfillment”?

The modern American woman who has tried to follow Friedan’s command to pursue a career and raise a family on the side finds herself in constant conflict with her own nature. For inside most if not all women lies a powerful desire to have some children and take care of them. In trying to straddle the worlds of career and homemaker, today’s woman finds stressed, tired, and, according to most studies, wanting to return home to be with the children. In her later years, she is more likely to be alone and separated from her children and husband.

We are no better off today than we were in 1963, and in many ways, we are worse. What, then, is the solution? How are women to be “fulfilled” by the role of wife and mother? The problem lies not in some kind of gender disparity, as Friedan thought, but rather in what Wendell Berry calls in The Unsettling of America the “sexual division of labor.”

Labor has always been gendered, Berry argues. Women have tended to focus on the domestic, while men have tended to do the work outside the home. But only with industrialization has the sexual division of labor been so pronounced. Men have left the home to work for money, an abstraction, while women have stayed at home doing work that was menial and automated. “Home became,” says Berry, “a place for the husband to go when he was not working or amusing himself. It was the place where the wife was held in servitude.”

The only way for both sexes to be fulfilled in their work is for work to become human again, for the home to reclaim its authority in American society, and for Americans—men and women—to resume the roles that are rightfully theirs. For that transition to happen, men and women both must make choices that go against the grain. Growing a household garden, homeschooling the children, a small home business, a home office—all these would help.

There are signs that we may be moving in the right direction—David Houle’s The Shift Age argues that Americans are changing the way that they work, foregoing a structured office environment and hierarchical system in which they do not see the end results of their labor for more project-based work that is also more likely to be amenable to flexible hours and home life.

Let us hope that the trend continues. Until the home becomes productive again, we will continue to see the problem that has no name, because women will still lead lives that deny their fundamental human nature and gifts.

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Family in America. This article was originally published in The Family in America, a MercatorNet partner site, and is republished with permission. 

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Howard Center’s quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research....