The Feminine Mystique Summary
by Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique Summary

Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to illuminate the plight of American women during the mid-nineteenth century.

  • Through interviews with American housewives, Friedan discovers that many of them are dissatisfied with their lives.

  • Friedan traces the return of women to domestic life after their pre-World War II 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.

  • Friedan concludes that housewives are prevented from developing full, autonomous identities. She argues that both men and women must reject the feminine mystique, and she encourages women to pursue 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 editors after the war.

Friedan believes that her generation was among the first victims of the feminine mystique, which pressured and guilted promising young women like Friedan and her peers into abandoning their professional goals. Friedan recounts her own regrettable decision to leave school after winning a fellowship that would have allowed her to get her doctorate degree and become a professional psychologist. Women confronted by the feminine mystique, she argues, are frightened of appearing too committed to their education or career and warding...

(The entire section is 2,017 words.)