The Feminine Mystique was one of the most influential books in convincing middle-class American women during the 1960’s that their personal identity as housewives and mothers had not provided them with full and meaningful lives. Herself one of the women whose plight she described, Betty Friedan examined “the problem that has no name” in a series of insightful chapters that set forth the many ways in which women felt frustrated and repressed.
The book grew out of Friedan’s search for a more significant existence. A writer whose professional career had taken second place to a husband and family, she surveyed the condition of women at the end of the 1950’s and then found that women’s magazines for which she wrote were reluctant to publish her findings. The magazines did not want details about the anxieties and tensions of middle-class, suburban women. She decided to write a book that could explore the issue of women’s identity in greater depth. The Feminine Mystique grew from her determination to locate the deeper causes of the frustration that she and women like her felt. As she researched how society directed women into child rearing and family to the exclusion of their own talents and abilities, she became convinced that the ideology of accepting such roles accounted for much of the problem.
The book proved to be a significant catalyst for many women in the 1960’s. Friedan’s powerful description of how her...
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan addresses what she terms “the problem that has no name,” questioning the aims of post-World War II American society and, especially, the roles of women. Born in Peoria, Illinois, and a graduate of Smith College, Friedan worked as a writer and researcher for women’s magazines before writing her groundbreaking book. During her research work, she discovered and interviewed a generation of women who identified themselves with the phrase “occupation: housewife.” Many of these “housewives” were college-educated women and were the daughters of college-educated women who became cultural pioneers in the 1920’s and 1930’s, working as teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals.
With the triumph of woman’s suffrage still fresh in the national conscience, pre-World War II women, despite an economic depression and a war raging in Europe and Asia, saw a limitless future for both their sons and their daughters. Circumstances, however, intervened, and the mood changed. The daughters of Rosie the Riveter and the granddaughters of Jazz Age flappers found a different America. World War II ended, and men came home to reclaim their jobs. The world saw the dawning of the nuclear age, the surging of the U.S. economy, a rise in marriages, and an increasing birthrate. As new houses were built and filled with wondrous new time-saving appliances, such as the dishwasher, the washing machine and clothes dryer, and the self-cleaning oven, the modern American woman became the mythical domestic goddess.
Writers of popular women’s magazines, who were mostly men, touted the new norm of easy home living. At the center of this blissful picture was the wife and mother, doting on her children, attentive to her husband, glorying in her beautifully decorated home. She lived through her children and her husband, not worrying herself about the larger issues of the day. More than just the myth, these were the commonly held expectations for women in the United States after the war.
In an effort to justify the gap between their reality and the ideal expectations, housewives turned to a number of diversions: alcoholism, psychiatry, prescription drugs, sexual conquests, and a fierce denial of their feelings, which often served as a springboard to feelings of inadequacy. All of these diversions sought to answer the often-stated question, Is this all there is? Many women, after raising their children, keeping their house spotless for years, encouraging their husbands—in short, serving as the bedrock of support for the family unit—looked around to ponder their accomplishments. What did they have to show for their efforts? What differences had they made in the world?
Beneath this seemingly serene surface, Friedan found layers of angst, dissatisfaction, and regret. Society viewed unsatisfied housewives as...