The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

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What happens in The Feminine Mystique?

Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to shed light on the plight of the American woman during the 1950s and 60s. She argued that an idealized image of domestic womanhood had created an identity crisis among American women. Extremely controversial at the time, The Feminine Mystique is often credited with inciting the second wave feminist movement.

  • Through interviews with American housewives, Friedan discovers that many of them suffer from a pervasive and unexplained sense of dissatisfaction; she dubs this feeling “the problem that has no name.”

  • Friedan traces the return of women to the domestic life after their pre-war emancipation. She argues that women were socially pressured into becoming homemakers by the “feminine mystique”: an idealized image of domestic femininity that arose in the 1950s. The feminine mystique was reinforced through education, popular media, and academic theories. Meanwhile, it was exploited by advertisers looking to sell products to unhappy housewives.

  • Friedan concludes that the life of a housewife prevents women from developing full, autonomous identities. She argues that both men and women must reject the feminine mystique, and she encourages women to pursue self-fulfillment through education.

 

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Summary

By the end of the 1950s, it was clear that something was happening to American women. The average marriage age was twenty years old and dropping while the middle-class birth rate was exploding. Women’s enrollment in college was falling steeply while more than half of the women accepted to college were dropping out before getting their degrees. Why were these young women so seemingly uninterested in having careers and educations, the very rights their suffragette mothers had worked so hard to secure? Was this new generation of women really happier as housewives? These are the questions that Betty Friedan grapples with in The Feminine Mystique. Drawing on countless interviews with housewives, psychologists, editors, and professors, as well as her own personal experience, Betty Friedan concludes that millions of American housewives are suffering in silence from a terrible and mysterious sense of emptiness. Women have difficulty describing or even admitting this feeling and thus Friedan dubs it “the problem that has no name.”

In the years after World War II, the suburban housewife took on an almost mythic quality. She was transformed by popular media into a domestic goddess—beautiful, feminine, and sublimely happy. Though she was educated, she chose to make her husband and children her career. Amazing new appliances and products spared her from the drudgery of housework, allowing her to devote herself to being the perfect wife, the perfect mother, and, therefore, the perfect woman. Over and over, it was said that the American housewife was the envy of women all around the world, yet Friedan’s interviews with these housewives revealed that nearly all of them suffered from an unexplained sense of dissatisfaction. They tried their best to mimic the “happy housewife” that stared out at them from magazines and advertisements, but even women who were incredibly successful housewives seemed to feel that something was missing. Friedan dubs the idealized version of femininity that emerged in the 1950s and 60s the “feminine mystique.” According to the feminine mystique, a woman’s only goal should be the fulfillment of her femininity through the domestic life of a homemaker. Friedan, who herself wrote for women’s magazines, argues that these magazines played a large role in crafting the feminine mystique and, by extension, fueling “the problem that has no name.” The happy housewife became the heroine of the stories in ladies’ magazines as well as the focal point of the advertisements that ran in those same magazines. Friedan notes that it is no coincidence that the creation of the “happy housewife heroine” coincided with the return of male writers and...

(The entire section is 3,292 words.)