The Post-War Housewife, The Feminine Mystique, and “The Comfortable Concentration Camp”

By Monda Halpern, Professor, The University of Western Ontario
(OWHN Conference, Fall 2022)

Monda Halpern

With the 1963 publication of her book, The Feminine Mystique, which spawned feminist activism that spanned four decades, Betty Friedan can be counted as one of the greatest social reformers of our time. Friedan wrote that her Judaism was integral to her feminism, which although overwhelmingly secular and assimilationist, exposed her to hurtful antisemitism and sensitized her to issues of bigotry and inequality. This experience makes Chapter 12, “Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp,” of The Feminine Mystique especially compelling. This overlooked section of the book compares the 1950s suburban home for women to a Nazi concentration camp, and female domesticity to the infantilization that characterized camp oppression. While today we may view the concentration camp analogy as shocking and offensive, it actually proved less so in 1963. According to Freidan, both the camp inmate and the housewife adopt childlike behavior; are forced to give up their individuality; and are robbed of their self-determination and ability to predict and prepare for the future. They also lose their adult self-respect and adult frame of reference; acquire a child-like preoccupation with food, elimination, and primitive bodily needs; experience no privacy or stimulation from the outside world; and are engaged in work that is monotonous, senseless, endless, and mentally unchallenging. Thus, they give up hope of advancement or recognition, and are controlled by the needs of others.

Although we may bristle at this analogy today, recognizing that the white, middle-class housewife enjoyed many benefits and privileges, many (Jewish) writers and their readers found the comparison rational, intellectually engaging, politically provocative, and culturally meaningful and relevant. According to Kirsten Fermaglich in her 2006 book American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness and Liberal America, 1957-1965, this analogy flourished for several reasons. First, with the civil rights movements of the 1960s, comparisons between American “fascism” and Nazi ideologies were increasingly made by liberal and radical activists, and were welcome in liberal circles. Secondly, Jews were increasingly accepted as part of the American intelligentsia in the 1960s, and their scholarly contributions, often influenced by their Judaism and replete with Nazi imagery, were receiving more mainstream attention and respect. Thirdly, the prevalence of press coverage and popular culture about Nazis reflected, and contributed to, a pre-occupation with all things Nazi; fourthly, the persecution of Jews specifically had not yet been uniquely labelled and named. As a result, Americans felt more free to reference Nazi images and symbols without fear of cultural insensitivity toward a particular group. Fifthly, although Friedan’s feminist arguments were seen as radical among the mainstream public, feminists did not perceive them as radical at all. Additionally, many other scholars were using the Nazi/concentration camp parallel in the 1950s and 60s, including Stanley Elkins, a renowned Jewish American historian of slavery who compared Nazi concentration camp victims to Black slaves in the United States. Indeed, Freidan borrowed her ideas from renowned psychologist and Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim and his 1960 book The Informed Heart. When Friedan’s book was published, then, no reviewers who liked its feminist message criticized her use of the analogy. Women were indeed the infantilized, often abused, victims of a tyrannical political system called patriarchy.

Scholars of the last 30 years, however, have severely criticized Friedan for her use of the imagery. Her biographer Daniel Horowitz, for example, called it problematic, trivializing, careless, and exaggerated. Afro-American feminist scholar bell hooks charged Friedan with narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence.

Even Friedan herself grew to regret the comparison, as relayed in her memoir Life So Far (2000).

Of course, many white middle-class women of the 1950s and 60s were privileged by their whiteness and their affluence, but we would be remiss if we completely ignored or dismissed the discrimination and devaluation imposed on them by a patriarchal culture. Although by contemporary standards, the concentration camp analogy went too far, Freidan was right in 1963 to emphasize that these post-war women were indeed devalued, diminished, and denied.