Feminine Mystique: How Betty Friedan and Maggie Doherty Upended My World

An essay that acts as an ode to the empowering, feminist masterpieces penned by Betty Friedan and Maggie Doherty…

by: Claire Wilcox

“Everything and everyone confirms that it’s just as you suspected: the problem is you. You’re oversexed, you’re undersexed, you’re overeducated, you’re unintelligent. You need to have your head shrunk; you need to take more sleeping pills. You ought to become a better cook — all those fancy new kitchen appliances!—and in the meantime be content and grateful with what you have.”

  from The Equivalents, by Maggie Doherty. 

On a longer-than-usual, post-pandemic, three-week trip to my childhood home in a suburb of Minneapolis, I finally dove into The Feminine Mystique, a 1963 bestseller by Betty Friedan. I’m embarrassed to say it was the first book I’d read about feminism, and I was already 48. 

I emerged onto the familiar lawn-lined street just after dawn my first morning there and returned a happy wave from the next-door neighbor Nancy, planting lilies. It was early spring, and the world was waking up from a long freeze. The avian orchestra of honks and quacks and chirps from the nearby swamp was deafening. I wondered if the noise would make it hard to concentrate on this book that I had committed to listen to on Audible and considered just jogging in silence, then called that thought for what it was — an excuse — and plugged my earbuds in.

A woman the same age as my mom had recommended I buy the classic feminist book a while back, and I had done so, on impulse.  But it had sat in my queue for months. I knew it was going to be about the dissatisfaction of women in the 1950s and 60s, and I worried it would feel passé. The truth was, I thought sexism was more a problem for the history books, and feminism mostly irrelevant in my subculture, at least. 

After all, I’d been able to do most of what I wanted in my career pursuits, and my gender had never gotten in my way. I was an independent, unmarried, childless woman. I had had a stimulating career as an addiction psychiatrist and researcher in a University setting. Then, when I tired of academia, I’d come upon no roadblocks to tackling my next goal either: to open a private practice. 

Opportunities were everywhere. I was financially stable, and reasonably happy. My life was fine. The world was different than it had been back then.

Of course, I was burned out from seeing patients, and I’d always wanted to be a writer, yet I hadn’t taken the time to focus on it. But that was my own doing, wasn’t it? Nothing to do with my gender. I’d always been hesitant to put my creative aspirations first. Somehow, I believed they weren’t as valuable as taking care of patients. Writing didn’t come as easy to me, and I probably had nothing earth shatteringly new to say, anyway. On the other hand, there was nothing that got me in the flow more than writing. I lost time when I wrote.

I began moving at a walk, and looked at my phone, pausing before selecting Friedan’s book. A novel was what I wanted, but determined the purchase would not go to waste, I pressed play, bracing myself.

As Parker Posey’s chummy voice, Friedan’s book’s narrator, began to speak, I was quickly transfixed.

I began to learn how during the late 20s and 30s there had been a kind of enlightenment for women, during which time there was more and more freedom to enter the workforce, pursue careers and follow dreams. Women were increasingly valued for artistic and intellectual accomplishments. Adventurousness and individuality were applauded.

But after World War II, things regressed, and much of that social progress came to a standstill.  Society saw women, as before, as best-suited to the role of housewife and mother, and her identity was to be primarily derived from her success on the home-front. Cultural messaging obscured things again, like a thick fog. 

Now, the ideal woman was a savvy cleaner, a good cook, a master at raising perfect little kids, sweet and conciliatory, and attractive and thin. 

According to Friedan, a sort of social engineering was behind the spread of these prevailing attitudes, the result of which was that “women were prevented from living their own lives”.” With the men coming back from the war, it was now of economic benefit to keep women out of the competitive workforce so that the jobs would be available for them. To this end, a highly effective series of magazine-based advertising campaigns had used strategically placed fiction stories, articles, and ads for cleaning supplies and other domestic products to change the way people saw women’s role in American culture. 

And American men and women, alike, had eaten it up and internalized it. As a consequence, women found it increasingly harder to get academic jobs, leadership positions, and be admired for their intelligence or aptitude. An entire generation was infected. 

The most devastating outcome of all from this cultural transformation, according to Friedan, was “the problem with no name.” The term rang familiarly eerie bells somewhere in the fog of my unconsciousness, churning my gut.

Friedan described it as “a vague undefined wish for something more than washing dishes, ironing, punishing, and praising children”.

According to Friedan, by 1963 most females were living their lives with deep, unrecognized yearnings to self-actualize that would never be fulfilled. Housewives were told, over and over, what an idyllic life they had — the myth of the “happy housewife” — but their dissatisfaction had no place to rest, so they felt the problem must lie in themselves, and many developed addictions, depression, and despair.

I did a quick calculation. My mom was already fifteen in the early 60s, having been born in 1948. 

I’m sure my mother had been influenced by Friedan’s messages — after all, she started at Barnard in New York in 1966 — and I had seen that in how she brought me up. In high-school, it wasn’t “where are you going to college” (that was a given), it was “what will you do your graduate studies in?” 

“There’s always time for love later,” she’d counsel me after pre-teen heartbreaks, like when T.M. changed his mind about wanting to date me in the sixth grade. “Your education and career aspirations are much more important. As your grandmother always used to say, boys are like buses, another one always comes along.”

But she still had the ideal of the 1950s woman stuck to her shoes, like so many women of her generation did. As I grew up, she gave me all of her finished Victoria Holt novels — gothic romances, where the girl is rescued by the handsome hard-to-get guy. I read them all, and we watched soaps, like Dynasty and All My Children, together, frequently. 

Other confining expectations for women, such as those related to body size and good looks, were still rooted deep in her too, and they affected how she raised me. When I started to put on weight in the tenth grade (an issue which would end up a life-long struggle for me), her panic on my behalf grew increasingly palpable. An overweight woman was an unhappy one, in her mind. After all, she was and had always been thin herself, and she wanted the best for her daughter.  

She and I would go clothes shopping, during those years when I was one of the heaviest girls in my class, and I’d emerge from the changing room, both vulnerable, and excited about a clingy dress or a cute, slightly revealing, top. “Ugh, that’s really unflattering,” she’d say, her face crinkling and tone decisive. In my senior year of high-school, I went on a 900 calorie a day diet and lost 25 pounds in three months, doing aerobics in the basement in all my free-time, and she applauded my efforts and taught me about calorie counting. 

There was also that damn societal belief that the best kind of woman is a sweet one. She always pushed me to be nice, especially with authority figures. Through overt or covert messaging, I learned to smile whenever possible, and to nod and be kind. Conflict should be avoided.

For herself, she had always seemed burdened with an ambiguous yearning for something more, too. My mom was primarily a homemaker in early adulthood, putting career aspirations aside. “I have no regrets about that,” she always said. “I loved being a mother.” But it had also been hard to stay at home with kids all day, I expect, and glean from her in her more honest moments, her active, intelligent, and curious mind set aside, suppressed and neglected.

Later, after I had gone to college, she went to graduate school and became a hospital administrator, but it still seemed like it didn’t quite hit the mark, and I wondered if it was because she had started too late. 

She straddled two worlds.

She had the “problem with no name.”

I thought of her now in her bathrobe at home, sipping coffee, her hair askew in bed and reading a thriller novel, and I recalled the surge of love I felt seeing her get out of the car to hug me at the airport. A strange sense of time passing every time I came home, the subtle changes in my parents. Her sweetness more evident with every visit, like a dog growing old. Something slipping out of my fingers, a sense of falling, a lump in my throat.

I’d been rough on her as a teenager and my early adulthood. I’d admonished her for her moods. But now I saw how merciless I had been. How unempathetic. Because much of it wasn’t her fault at all. My mom had been infected by these beliefs, and suffered, possibly greatly. 

For a moment, I wished I could go back in time and do things differently. Maybe even save her. 

When I’d watched Mad Men, I’d felt ever so grateful that I’d been born decades later. Unlike my mom and grandmother’s generation of women, my work-life had been largely untouched by overt sexism. I’d gotten into a great college, applied to medical school, got in, and become a doctor. The choices I made, career wise, all seemed to pan out. 

Of course, not every woman in medicine that I had befriended and worked along-side had been as lucky as me. 

Take Jen, for instance, my bright, dedicated, and energetic medical school friend who was hell-bent on becoming a Urologist from day one. Stellar test scores and many midnights spent in the basement lab with pig bladders earned her an acceptance into a residency in the male-dominated field, but the boy’s club made the next five years of training hell for her. Her colleagues and superiors constantly berated her surgical skills in the operating room, chortled during her presentations, made sexual advances on her at gatherings, and assured her she’d never make it through the exams. It crushed her spirit, slowly, and I watched her bitterness gnaw at her insides over the decades about the field, like rats. Her passion for medicine waned.

Or Lisa, another dear friend. She was a psychiatrist at the VA who worked day in and day out helping angry, addicted vets get their lives back, people who she showered with a limitless supply of compassion and wisdom. After five years of this, she pointed out to leadership that her salary was a third less than her male counterparts. Her male boss, appropriately, gave her a raise. But in the years that followed, he then seemed to thwart each and every attempt she made to build programs to improve the care of her patients. She called me on the edge of tears one day and related the story of the final straw — a younger, male, colleague had been given the role of Wellness Clinic Director, a job she’d been angling for, and vocal about wanting, for months. 

Retaliation, probably. 

Maybe, I’d just been too lucky to be stomped on by the patriarchy, myself. Or maybe too blind. Those few things that happened and smelled of sexism during my academic career, too vague to even describe here. If gender played a role in how I was treated, it felt too difficult to grab on to any threads. 

Interestingly, in 1960, 50 years prior, the typical full-time female worker also earned a little over a third less than their male counterparts. (Doherty, 2020) So, regardless of my own fairly un-obstructed path, I had to admit in some places, we were still in the dark-ages, in medicine.

And I couldn’t deny that I had inherited some of my mom’s generation’s ambivalence and had my own “problem with no name” to contend with. 

In the 50s and 60s, college women were less focused on their education than they were on fulfilling the feminine ideal: to snag a man, get married, and make babies. Therefore, the ideal woman was pretty and thin. Physical appearance and the ability to attract a man and quality husband were core determinants of success. Unfortunately, these toxic cultural expectations have lingered.

In high school, my friend Erin confessed to me that two boys had felt her up while she was drunk and almost passed out at a party the previous weekend. They had tried to take it further, but she woke up just in time and kicked them off and ran. 

“Oh, my God, they are so disgusting, that’s horrific,” I had exclaimed. But there was a false ring to my voice, and her eyes flickered. She had heard it. 

The reality was, a part of me wondered if their infraction was not also a little bit a fault of her own. She had been obsessed with perfecting her already beautiful legs. She spent hours a week in tanning booths and on the stair-master. She paraded them, wearing mini-skirts and no tights, even through the dead of Minnesota winter. What did she expect, being scantily clad and boozily incapacitated around a bunch of hormonal teens, focusing so intently on her looks all the time?

As I remembered this, the guilt washed over me. She had just been internalizing what all women had been told, and unconsciously believed: that getting and keeping a man was what gave a girl value. These were messages we all had gotten. 

Really, I had been no freer than Erin was.

Because, at the same time I judged Erin (and didn’t judge the boys nearly enough for their abusive behavior), unacknowledged jealousy simmered. She had been pretty enough to be harassed. I had not. As I moved the yellow tassel from one side of the hat to the other, and they handed me my degree and honors plaque, I felt like I was heading out into the larger world a pariah, deficient. Because no boys were trying to feel me up when I was drunk. 

Clearly, I was caught in the double-standard too. 

In grade-school, I was an intellectual and a tomboy, giving little thought to my looks. But in seventh grade, Jason S. called me a “nerd” in front of everyone. Afterwards, not even Jerod Z., the quiet cute boy that sat next to me in computer class and who I had long fantasized about kissing me, would smile back. Determined to make a change, in 8th grade, I crossed out my previous year’s yearbook picture — me with long un-styled brown hair parted down the middle and glasses fit for a middle-aged woman — with a black pen, until nothing was visible. I vowed to become feminine, popular, and desirable. And I tried, but none of the dating or flirting stuff ever came as easy to me as getting good grades. 

Decades later, even into my late 30’s, I was still haunted by a rock-bottom self-worth despite a crazy solid career and loads of friends. Why? Because I hadn’t yet found that man. Single. Unmarried. Broken. I blamed it on the fact that I was not beautiful. My body liked to hold on to more weight than my friends, and I was always obsessing about it. I had an asymmetric face, pudgy cheeks, and squinty, unsexy eyes without lashes. No matter how well I was doing in my career, in my core, I felt like a failure. I didn’t deserve to take up space. I stayed small. I hid.

By my early 40’s, I’d relinquished a lot of that thinking, thanks to the therapist that would tear up when I told the stories that made me feel hollow, and the luck of stumbling into a stable relationship with a man who loved and grounded me. But, before that, body image and low self-esteem about my appearance had been a decades long struggle.

So much time and mental space gone. 

But this wasn’t the only vestige of internalized sexism that I carried. In 1950’s magazine campaigns, the ideal woman was painted as passive, sweet, and conciliatory. Anger was ugly. I unfortunately had adopted that limiting thought-habit too.

As a medical student, a white-haired male neurology mentor who I admired recommended I choose primary care instead of neurology in my third year, “because we need more nice people in primary care”. Ignoring my hurt feelings — his words felt like a rejection — I took his advice, going against my own fascination with the brain and neuroscience and chose a primary care internal medicine residency. Later I’d realize what a mistake I’d made and switch to psychiatry, but it would be a hellish three-year detour. 

Then, throughout my career in academia, if work needed to be done, I’d just take care of things myself, and do it all with a smile. I’d be jealous of my male counterparts who were always able to shuffle off busy work to others, somehow, magically, and sail through, always looking well rested and refreshed.  

Too, when I had to go to bat with a high-ranking University leader towards the end of my years at University of New Mexico, I had nodded and smiled instead of standing up for my needs, and left the job instead of staying and going to war.

Conformity was my fallback. If I rocked the boat I would be banished. 

I was self-aware enough to know this about myself, and I hated it. I tried to become more outspoken. But the fear was usually too great.

Unlike Lisa, I never actually compared my own salary to those of my male colleagues — perhaps living in obscurity by choice.

But now I saw, through Friedan’s words, that I’d been implanted with this — first from my well-meaning family, and then rigorously reinforced by today’s society — women should be nice. 

I wasn’t alone either. I remembered the time a colleague observed that when a research paper is rejected from an academic journal, a man gets angry at the editors and reviewers, whereas a woman blames herself. 

Didn’t that say it all?

At this point, I was getting to the end of my jog. I was approaching a little playground at the top of a hill where there was a small sense of altitude, a view.

I remembered sitting there in that field of brown grass behind the preschool I attended as a little girl with blonde curls and pigtails. But in my memory, it was covered in deep green softness, riddled with dandelions. We were in a circle, watching Ms. Irani, our revered and slightly intimidating teacher, discuss something, or reading. We must have looked adorable.

I felt a lump, regretful for all the time I had lost over the decades. My mind swirled. Feelings of regret, and grief for who I might have been, welled up, and washed over me like waves as I recalled the insecurities that I’d struggled with, and overcome. Then the feelings transformed into anger and then rage, when I remembered that many of those limiting beliefs that had kept me entrapped had come from outside, not me. And then finally, these, all, too passed.

Because, then, I had an insight. There was a flip side to the coin — something to celebrate. The fact was, these beliefs about the ways a woman should be belonged to some dead guys from the 40s, 50s and 60s. They were false, therefore not mine, and not any of ours. I could let these beliefs go. I had choice. I would make it my top priority to: Let. Them. Go. Actively. 

Here are some quotes from women who read Friedan’s book soon after it was published. “I felt as though Betty Friedan had looked into my heart, mind, and psyche and…put the unexplainable distress I was suffering into words.” Another reported that after reading the book, “I finally realized I wasn’t crazy.” And yet another, “I can’t express how freeing it was for me to realize that my predicament was not my own fault.” (Doherty, 2020) 

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

When I arrived home, I walked in the door, and my mom and dad were already making breakfast in the kitchen. “You were out a long time,” she said. “We were starting to worry.” They were right, I had gone over six miles, but I felt a surge of irritation for being made to feel guilty. But then I remembered my earlier feelings of empathy. 

Although I knew my mom had always loved being a parent, she had always had unacknowledged regrets. For decades her active mind had been filled with thoughts of hosting parties, getting babies and dogs fed and to school, cooking dinner, staying trim, tending to hand-me-downs, grocery shopping, polishing silver…but perhaps she had always been yearning for something more. 

My heart went out to her, and I went over and gave her a hug despite my runner’s sweat. She generously didn’t retreat against my dampness and hugged me back a little surprised. 

“I was listening to The Feminine Mystique, have you heard of it?” She said she thought so, but had never read it, and I described some of the things I had learned, like about how messages were implanted through media, to change societal expectations for women. I thought I saw a shift, maybe an insight, flicker in her eyes, and I hoped she might be inspired to read it too someday.

“You should tell Mia about all this, and Charlotte,” she encouraged, referring to my nieces. I told her I would.

And I did, the next day, at a family gathering, over dinner. “Have you heard of Betty Friedan?” I asked. Only my mom and dad said yes. “She was a feminist that helped expose how women were being squeezed into those awful boxes in the 50s — encouraged to be mothers and homemakers, instead of doing what they aspired to, career-wise. I just read her book. I think it’s still relevant today. Like, when I was in high school, some of the boys were just terrible to us girls.” Both their faces lit up, in interest. “A group of them used to chant ‘Jugs’ at a friend of mine, whenever we walked down the hall. It killed her. Are they like that for you guys?”

They nodded, each sharing a few toxic stories of their own. 

“I’m never having kids,” concluded Mia, sixteen. Her mom cautioned her against being so sure (so similar to how my mom had reacted when I had said the same thing). 

“Boys are musty” said Charlotte, thirteen. We all laughed. 

It was 2023, two years later. The previous year, Roe v. Wade was overturned. There were disturbing reports in the news about Incels, and Trump was the forerunner again for the Republican party. There was still a deep vein of sexism in our country.

My mom still hadn’t read The Feminine Mystique. And we never really went back to the topic. I haven’t shared this essay with her. I’m too scared it will hurt her.

My friend Jen and Lisa had moved on in their careers and were in new positions, having given up the fights. Meanwhile, I was at the tail end of a transition that had been taking place in my own career.

I’d been considering leaving my private practice. One of the reasons I hadn’t, yet, was that I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me that I didn’t love it. Shouldn’t helping people, making them happy and healthy, be the ultimate goal in life, and be all that I needed? Maybe I just needed to get over some psychological block, and then I’d like it. I kept trying new things. Nothing changed. I’d never really had the draw to be a mother, it seemed only natural that I should seek meaning through caregiving in a different way and find it. But I hadn’t. In fact, I had come to dread patient visits much of the time. 

The Equivalents, is a recent book about the feminist movement by Maggie Doherty which follows an intellectual and creative fellowship of women students and professors at the new Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study through the late 50s and early 60s. I was inspired to read it after so enjoying The Feminine Mystique.

Tillie Olsen, a writer and single-mother, is quoted in this book as saying, “Not a moment to sit down and think…the death of the creative process…life (the job that takes so much from me, the family that takes so much from me) has its own anesthesia…I keep dividing myself and flow apart, I who want to become one river and become great.” She goes on to describe, “the ‘angel in the house’ — the nurturing feminine ideal — that thwarted creative ambition in women. Not everyone could kill that angel. Some women ended up killing themselves.” (Doherty, 2020)

I related to Olson. Medicine had been my substitute for motherhood.  Sure, I’d had no children, but I still somehow had accepted as fact that a life of nurturing was more valuable than one of creativity! My shackles. Still here. The stifling cultural beliefs that inspired Friedan’s book, were alive and well, in me, implanted, too.

I had been living in the shoulds far too often: caring for patients, teaching, giving talks, mentoring, calling back friends or family in need without delay.  Sure, I liked being the first-line confidante sometimes, a reliable giver of unconditional positive regard, but it filled up my work-calendar, and it ate up my free-time. I needed to draw stronger boundaries and get quiet. I knew, from past experience, that’s when the good stuff would come out.

Had I been a man would I have made space in my life to be a writer sooner? Would it have been easier to (mostly) leave medicine had I not a half-conscious belief that a woman wouldn’t be living a valuable life if she wasn’t helping others? Nora from A Doll’s House Part 2 abandons her family for two years to be a writer. She sees she must leave them to succeed. I needed to leave my patients. 

In early 2023, I ended my private practice, and likely my career in clinical medicine. I finally felt ok saying it out-loud: I didn’t want to take care of people anymore and I still deserved a place in this world if I didn’t.

I was determined to focus on writing. Even if I didn’t think I was particularly talented. I would do the work to try to become better. Instead of worrying over whether I had anything to say, I would be honest, above all else — no shame or holding back, no shying away.

“Self-trivialization [is one way women destroy themselves]. Believing the lie that they are not capable of major creations,” Sylvia Plath said, as quoted in The Equivalents. (Doherty, 2020) 

I was way too familiar with self-trivialization. And although I doubted that “major creations” were in my future, I knew I would never be happy if I didn’t even try for some minor ones. 

Women — oh so many of us — experience countless large or little traumas throughout our lives, due to overt or internalized sexism. These undermine our confidence in ways that most men don’t viscerally understand. We lose power, and we shrink, year by year. Being nice becomes a habit. And we fester. Still. Half a century after Betty Friedan’s book came out. It’s NOT okay. 

Unlike Olsen and many women of her time, and countless women of my time, I could create the space. I had no children, I was financially secure, and I lived in a country where the women had rights.

The Equivalents again: “The cultural pressure of the 1950s was so intense that some women, in order to survive, killed off the parts of themselves that couldn’t conform.” (Doherty, 2020)

I owed it to my gender to put the writing first, for once. I needed to break the mold that I and my culture had crafted around me over the decades. And I would.


Doherty, Maggie. The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s. Deckle Edge, 2020.

Claire Wilcox is an addiction psychiatrist, associate professor of translational neuroscience and writer. She has published essays in the El Portal Literary Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and elsewhere. She has also written articles for the Santa Fe Reporter, Psychology Today and Science in the News. She authored the book Food Addiction, Obesity and Disorders of Overeating: An Evidence-Based Assessment and Clinical Guide, published by Springer in 2021, and numerous academic articles. She’s a MFA candidate in fiction at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Other writings can be found on her website at www.wilcoxmd.com.

0 replies on “Feminine Mystique: How Betty Friedan and Maggie Doherty Upended My World”