The Feminine Mystique (The Sixties in America)
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, a freelance writer and 1942 Smith graduate, intertwines anecdotes and observations from her own life with facts and analysis from her research, creating a work with which the feminine reader can readily identify. Her starting point was her own personal experience. Friedan had everything a woman in the 1950’s was supposed to have—a good husband, wonderful children, financial security, and a nice house—but she was not completely satisfied. Society said the truly fulfilled, feminine woman was a full-time homemaker who completely devoted herself to her husband and children. Friedan was a devoted wife and mother who loved and enjoyed her family. Still, something important seemed to be missing from her life.
Friedan began to wonder about the experiences of other homemakers and whether they were completely satisfied or if they also felt that something important was missing from their lives. In 1957, Friedan decided to find out, turning to fellow Smith College graduates for the answers. Her research revealed these highly educated, intelligent suburban housewives were discontented. Like Friedan, many women experienced uneasy feelings of incompleteness or emptiness. Others felt unexplainable fatigue. Sometimes anger and frustration welled up inside of them. They were not supposed to have these kinds of feelings—but they did. Such feelings were viewed as problematic, not only by...
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The Feminine Mystique (Ethics (Ready Reference series))
Friedan defined the feminine mystique as the myth of female fulfillment based on domestic labor and proposed that the myth is based on a vision of woman not as a whole person but only in terms of her sexual role. This limiting view of woman, which further suggested that a woman’s value could only be expressed through her potential as wife and mother, discouraged women from pursuing educations or professions, thus effectively trapping them within the myth. According to Friedan, post-World War II economic and social factors combined to force American women to confine their interests and energies solely to serving their husbands and children through their roles as housewives, a situation that led women to devalue themselves and their contributions to society. She based this assessment in part on extensive interviews with women, many of whom were highly educated and were plagued with feelings of frustration, guilt, and inadequacy because they were not completely satisfied by the rewards of homemaking. These women felt isolated from one another and alienated from society by their failure to conform to the myth. Friedan asserted that women must look outside the narrow role assigned to them by the feminine mystique in order to discover identity and fulfillment.
Behm, Barbara. Betty Friedan: Speaking Out for Women’s Rights. Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1992.
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The Feminine Mystique (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Betty Friedan began researching The Feminine Mystique as a result of her own questions with regard to her roles as worker, wife, and mother. Her first research was a questionnaire she developed for the members of her graduating class from Smith College. She then examined the writings of psychologists, philosophers, and literary theorists; spoke with magazine editors, marketing researchers, and theoretical experts on women; and, most important, interviewed eighty women—students, young mothers, and middle-aged women—facing issues of self-definition. The endnotes attest Friedan’s broad-based research during the five years she spent writing the book.
The Feminine Mystique supports a thesis that women need meaningful work in order to be healthy adults. Friedan documents a trend in American life: Since World War II ended, women in the United States had been conditioned away from accepting responsibility for themselves outside marriage and motherhood. Friedan asserts that American women are in “chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices. They are not easily seen and not easily shaken off.”
Mistaken ideas include Sigmund Freud’s theories of women’s motivation. Friedan argues against the Freudian assumption that women are motivated by penis envy, a longing for that which their bodies lack, and find fulfillment by transferring to their...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
The year 1963 was an unusually significant one for American women: President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women reported its findings, after two years of extensive research and debate; Congress finally passed the Equal Pay Act, assuring women equal pay for equal work, at least in the jobs under its jurisdiction; and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a ground-breaking book which challenged all the conventional notions of women’s place in society as it was commonly understood in the post-World War II era.
In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan seeks to answer two fundamental questions. First, why was it that women—who had struggled so hard for educational and career opportunities in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s and who had distinguished themselves during the difficult war years, in both traditional and nontraditional occupations—had retreated in the 1950’s en masse to the suburbs to throw themselves into housewifery and motherhood? Second, why was it that these same women—many of whom had achieved their goals of split-level homes, upwardly mobile young husbands, and a number of well-groomed children—were so unaccountably depressed and dissatisfied with their lives? The search for the answer to these questions led Friedan to identify and finally to understand “the problem that has no name.”
Friedan answers the question of women’s retreat from public life by examining a plethora...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Feminine Mystique is a classic of the early years of the late twentieth century’s feminist movement. Its title is also the term coined by Betty Friedan to define the post-World War II image of women, which suggested that all women should find their female fulfillment as happy, contented housewives and in their families and homes.
In a 1957 survey of her Smith College classmates from fifteen years earlier, Friedan notices a real clash between the educations women were receiving and the ways they were expected to live out the rest of their lives. Having attempted to live up to this feminine ideal herself and experienced at first hand the vague sense of unease, boredom, and frustration many women felt in that narrow role, Friedan, a free-lance magazine writer at the time, tried to publish her findings in several women’s magazines, including McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, and Redbook. Yet her conclusion that the problem was not the education women received but the circumscribed roles those educated women were asked to play afterward was too radical and threatening for these magazines, and Friedan realized that to get her ideas into print she would have to write a book. This book became The Feminine Mystique.
With driving passion, Friedan systematically analyzes her topic. She begins by describing “the problem that has no name,” the boredom, frustration, and lack of fulfillment felt by...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
This was a book that had to be written. Chafing under a limited vision of what they could and should be, American middle-class women were bound to explode in frustration. Friedan’s book named the unnamed source of their dissatisfaction, analyzed it, and made sense of where it came from, identifying it as a social phenomenon rather than a manifestation of natural womanhood. This analysis gave them a glimpse of a way out, providing the vehicle they needed.
Thousands of women saw themselves in the pages of this book. The phenomenon named by Friedan was real; it was a social force that arose, as she says, both out of the experiences of World War II and out of fears of the gains women had been making since the feminist movement of the nineteenth century. Any perusal of the women’s magazines of the 1950’s, which can now be found in antique shops and flea markets, shows that Friedan was right about the propaganda these magazines were publishing.
Friedan’s naming of the problem helped women struggling under the feminine mystique to see that their problems were not uniquely their own, were not caused by their own inadequacies, but were the result of an ideology that simply did not fit the realities of most women’s lives. The corsets of the nineteenth century distorted the body shapes of the women who wore them, harming them in the process, and the feminine mystique was a social corset that distorted and harmed the lives and identities of the...
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World War II
World War II was such a monumental event that it is commonly used as a cultural divider for the twentieth century. Friedan also cites World War II as the main impetus for the development of the feminine mystique. Throughout the book, Friedan compares many pre-war and post-war statistics and examples to support her points. For example, Friedan notes: ‘‘Fewer women in recent college graduating classes have gone on to distinguish themselves in a career or profession than those in the classes graduated before World War II, the Great Divide.’’ World War II was a traumatic event for many Americans. Soldiers witnessed unspeakable horrors on the battlefields and in German concentration camps, which carried out the dehumanization and extermination of millions of Jews and others. For the wives and families of soldiers, the war was a time of loneliness and fear, as many wondered whether their loved ones would return home safely. At the end of the war, both soldiers and civilians were shocked by the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.
The Cold War
Several countries—including the communist Soviet Union—quickly followed suit by developing and testing their own atomic bombs. The 1947 Truman Doctrine, a policy that advocated having the United States back free countries against communist forces, ultimately helped increase the tension...
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Chapters 1 - 4 Questions and Answers
1. What is “the problem that has no name” of which Friedan writes?
2. When did the media begin paying attention to the issue of women’s identities as housewives and the pitfalls of that role?
3. What were women told to do about their dissatisfaction?
4. How did the media portray the role of women in the 1930s and 1940s, versus during the 1950s?
5. What does Betty Friedan mean by the terms “Occupation: Housewife” and “the feminine mystique”?
1. Women are dissatisfied with what they are told should make them happy, which is an identity formed and shaped by marriage, parenting, and housekeeping. They are discouraged from using their minds or asserting their independence, and the media both promotes this lifestyle and assumes that women don’t have any interests beyond their roles as spouses and mothers.
2. Friedan writes that in 1960 the media began reporting on the perceived problem of women’s identity as limited to that of mother, spouse, and domestic.
3. Women were told to be grateful for their protected status and that they didn’t have to go out in the world and compete, like men. Some argued that women wouldn’t have the attitude they do if they’d had less education—and that women don’t need education.
4. During the 1930s and very early 1940s, women were portrayed as “New...
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Chapters 5 - 8 Questions and Answers
1. What is Freud’s idea of “penis envy” and how was this concept promoted during the era of the feminine mystique?
2. What is functionalism and how were Margaret Mead’s theories used to reinforce the ideas of functionalism?
3. What does Friedan mean when she says education in the mid-twentieth century became “sex-directed”?
4. Friedan writes that research shows women who graduated from “sex-directed” education were initially happy but later showed “anomie.” What is “anomie”?
5. With the cultural focus on mothering recommended by the feminine mystique, did women learn to become better mothers than their predecessors?
1. Freud’s theories in essence said that women’s fate was to always envy what she lacks and man has—a penis. His theories suggest that men are the sexually and intellectually superior gender, and that any woman wishing to break out of traditional female roles of mother, wife, or housekeeper won’t succeed, for she is only displaying a “penis envy”—as if her urge to think or work is an impossible wish to become male.
2. Functionalism promoted the idea that women should fulfill their current and past “function” in society and marry, then raise and rear children and protect the home front. Margaret Mead’s initial anthropological research suggested that “functions” in...
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Chapters 9 - 11 Questions and Answers
1. In what way is consumerism a key ingredient in the feminine mystique?
2. Advertising asserts that women should buy timesaving products for the home. How is this fact a dilemma for both advertisers and women?
3. How does the work of a housewife expand to fill the time available? What did Friedan learn about the time housework takes for women with jobs or serious outside interests?
4. How do “open plan” architecture and the rise of the suburbs reflect the role of the housewife in American society during the 1940s and 1950s?
5. Why does the feminine mystique turn women into “sex seekers”?
1. Advertisers realize women can be persuaded and manipulated to buy items for the home. Mothers, the advertisers realize, can be guilt-tripped into buying products they think will make them better parents, and women who are young brides believe owning the right products will help them keep up with other families.
2. Advertisers need to continue selling products to women since housework is endless. However, timesaving products are complicated to market. Women want to be “modern,” but they also feel pride at doing the work themselves. Advertisers, and even the women, wonder what women will do with their newfound free time—and advertisers hope they don’t get enough free time to take on careers. Advertisers recommend that they use...
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Chapters 12 - 14 Questions and Answers
1. How do children raised by mothers of the feminine mystique generation turn out compared to children of prior generations?
2. What does Friedan mean by “non-commitment” and “vicarious living”? How does the feminine mystique encourage both?
3. What are the benefits of women developing “dominant” personalities?
4. How do “dominant” women perceive love, versus their peers whose notions of love are informed by the feminine mystique?
5. What can women do to undo the damages inflicted by the feminine mystique, according to Friedan?
1. Children of this generation are passive and unmotivated, in part because their mothers were so young and underdeveloped when they began having babies. Mothers lacking a full identity of their own seek to get one through their children, indulging and spoiling them and considering their children’s pains and successes their own, thus robbing the children of their own identity—and leading to their passivity and lack of character.
2. “Non-commitment” refers to going through the motions of an activity without having any personal feelings or investment in it. “Vicarious living” refers to having no identity of one’s own and seeking excitement through others and what they do.
3. “Dominant” women are happier in their relationships (including marriage), as well as...
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A manifesto is a written declaration, which defines the author's beliefs. In the beginning of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan declares her belief that ‘‘the problem that has no name’’—the widespread unhappiness of women—has a very definite cause. Says Friedan, ‘‘It is my thesis that the core of the problem for women today is not sexual but a problem of identity—a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique.’’ Manifestos are often political in nature, and Friedan's manifesto is no different. As she demonstrates in her book, powerful forces in education, media, and the corporate world benefited from restricting women to the narrow roles of housewife and mother. Says Friedan: ‘‘A great many people have, or think they have, a vested interest in ‘Occupation: housewife.’’’ As a result, she notes that, if women follow her advice, they will need to deal with ‘‘the prejudices, mistaken fears, and unnecessary dilemmas’’ that will be offered as resistance to women's emancipation.
Point of View
Friedan narrates her book mainly from a first-person, or personal, point of view. Some of the time, this point of view is her own. Says Friedan, ‘‘Gradually I came to realize that the problem that has no name was shared by countless women in America.’’ In other cases, Friedan includes first-person quotes from some of these countless...
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Compare and Contrast
- Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: During the Cold War Americans live in fear of nuclear war. Government sources do not give American citizens accurate or complete information about the potential effects of nuclear war and instead use propaganda to ease the minds of Americans.
Today: Many Americans live in fear of terrorist attacks, especially biological and chemical warfare. President George W. Bush and other government representatives make frequent addresses to U.S. citizens, apprising them of the potential dangers of weapons of mass destruction.
- Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: Married women's happiness in the United States is equated mainly with sexual satisfaction, and many media sources print graphic and detailed descriptions of sex techniques and acts. However, premarital and extramarital sex is still viewed as taboo. In 1940, less than 4 percent of all births are to unmarried women.
Today: Most research supports a balanced, healthy life—including work, nutrition, exercise, and sex—as the key to happiness for both men and women in the United States. Premarital and extramarital sex is common and does not register much shock except in conservative groups. In 1999, approximately one-third of all births are to unmarried women.
- Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: Women...
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Topics for Further Study
- Research recent female fertility studies and discuss how the findings may affect women who wish to have both a career and a family.
- Research the statistics regarding househusbands—fathers who choose to forego a career to stay at home and take care of children. Compare the mental and physical effects on these fathers to the effects on mothers as noted in Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and discuss potential reasons for any similarities or differences that you find.
- In one column of a table, plot the major changes that Friedan advocated for women in the 1960s, as expressed by her in ‘‘A New Life Plan for Women,’’ the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique. In the other column, fill in the current laws or other social changes that have fulfilled Friedan's wishes. Discuss any of Friedan's suggested changes that have not happened yet, including any historical, economical, or social reasons that explain why.
- During the modern women's movement, the United States was also undergoing a Civil Rights movement. Research these two movements in the 1960s and discuss how they affected each other.
- Research the long history of women's struggle for equality in the United States. Create a timeline of major events in this struggle. Choose one major feminist from any point in this history, other than Friedan, and write a biography about her....
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What Do I Read Next?
- In her controversial book The Second Stage (1981), Friedan defines a new mystique, the feminist mystique, which she says is supported by the superwoman stereotype—the woman who can do everything. Friedan advocates making the family the central focus in women's life and instituting separate standards for women and men, since women cannot be expected to perform at their highest levels at both work and home.
- In The Masculine Mystique: The Politics of Masculinity (1995), Andrew Kimbrell argues that American men are in crisis. As in Friedan's book, Kimbrell's manifesto examines men's history, discusses sociological factors that affect men, and offers a plan of action to combat the masculine mystique.
- In The Difference: Growing Up Female in America (1994), Washington Post columnist Judy Mann explores the difficulties of growing up as a female in the United States in the 1990s. Drawing on her own experiences, interviews with teenage girls, and a wealth of historical and cultural research, Mann discusses the various sociological forces that affect girls today and offers suggestions for new ways to raise boys and girls.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1899), which is based on events in her own life, is one of the most powerful works by early feminists. In the story, a protagonist is locked into a third-floor room...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bernays, Anne. ‘‘Love Her or Leave Her,’’ in Washington Post Book World, August 8, 1976, p. F7.
Brewer, Mary F. ‘‘Betty Friedan,’’ in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 246: Twentieth-Century American Cultural Theorists. Gale, 2001, pp. 128-39.
Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. ‘‘The Major Myth of the Women's Movement,’’ in Dissent, Vol. 46, No. 4, Fall 1999, pp. 83-86.
Fava, Sylvia Fleis. Review of The Feminine Mystique, in the American Sociological Review, Vol. 28, No. 6, December 1963, pp. 1053-54.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Friedan, Betty. ‘‘Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition,’’ in The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 3-7.
Howard, Jane. ‘‘Tenth Anniversary Edition,’’ in New Republic, Vol. 170, No. 17, April 27, 1974, pp. 25-26.
Iannone, Carol. ‘‘What Moderate Feminists?’’ in Commentary, Vol. 99, June 1995, pp. 46–48.
Kay, Herma Hill. ‘‘Do We Suffer from a Feminist Mystique?’’ in the New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1981, pp. 3, 33.
Review of The Feminine Mystique, in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 3196, May 31, 1963, p. 391.
Review of The Feminine...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Behm, Barbara. Betty Friedan: Speaking Out for Women’s Rights. Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1992.
Blau, Justine. Betty Friedan. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Part of the American Women of Achievement series, this book is intended for grades five and up. Yet far more than an interesting storybook about Betty Friedan, this volume goes into depth both on Friedan’s life and on the feminist movement she helped spark. It also includes several pages on The Feminine Mystique—its writing, its content, and responses to it.
Chafe, William H. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Includes a brief but helpful discussion of The Feminine Mystique which not only deals with its effect on American women but also notes the reasons that Friedan’s approach has been criticized by other feminists.
Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This book combines biographical material on a number of feminist activists of the late twentieth century. There are several chapters on Betty Friedan, including an entire chapter on The Feminine Mystique.
Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. Controversy and Coalition: The New...
(The entire section is 451 words.)