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The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan

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Why does Friedan believe that women in America in the 1950s and early 60s, despite the era's prosperity and stability, are fundamentally unhappy?

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For Friedan, the answer is a complex one.  An aspect of it lies in the depiction of women in the media.  Friedan makes the argument that there was a fundamental difference in how women were depicted in the 1930s and 1940s as opposed to the time period afterwards.  She uses the example of the "pioneering woman" that dominated media images in the 1930s.  Friedan also employs the example of published fiction such as "Sarah and the Seaplane" in which a female protagonist finds happiness through her own autonomy.  Friedan makes the argument that part of the reason for such a depiction was that the war moved women into positions of autonomy while men were off fighting.  This autonomy resulted in a sense of happiness for women because they felt, to a great extent, that they could be in control of their being in the world.

Yet, in the 1950s and 1960s, Friedan suggests that unhappiness results because social mores and images in the media clearly suggest a very constricting notion of being a woman.  "Occupation: Housewife" becomes a dominant and popularized part of the narrative of the time.  For women of this time period, Friedan suggests that there was an active campaign to shrink the consciousness of women.  The fundamental unhappiness results in a collision between what is experienced subjectively and what is understood externally.  Friedan makes the analysis that women were unhappy because their internal understanding of identity was being actively contradicted by the world around them, a condition that prevented them from using their voice as an active agent of dissent.  The unhappiness resulted from a state of being in which what was internally experienced and understood was not validated or authenticated.  When women could only see themselves as possessing identity with their spouses, unhappiness results.

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