The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Feminine Mystique Analysis

Women’s magazines, Friedan suggests, were one of the primary popularizers of the feminine mystique, encouraging women to focus on home and family to the exclusion of anything else. She describes in detail articles, stories, and whole issues whose primary message was that women who aspired to any interest beyond the home were unhappy, unfulfilled, and abnormal.

She goes on to analyze the genesis of the mystique in postwar values, as a way for war-weary Americans, frightened of the changes in the modern world, to hide in an idealized notion of a safe home complete with happy housewife and contented children. She also notes that a fear of “masculinized” women helped drive the development and popularity of the feminine mystique. The gains in women’s rights and freedoms as a result of the feminist movement of the nineteenth century were threatening to U.S. society as a whole, and during the 1950’s the feminists of earlier days were portrayed as ridiculous characters who had simply been unable to attain love and feminine fulfillment. Friedan commits an entire chapter to explaining what these feminist pioneers really did and who they were.

Further chapters focus on popular ideas and belief systems that bolstered the feminine mystique, and each is exploded in the analysis. For example, Freud’s concept that women are driven by penis envy was used as justification for mocking the ideas and work of feminists, since they could be dismissed as maladjusted women who had not resolved their penis envy. Friedan counters the popular dependence on Freudian ideas by delving into the forces that motivated Freud himself and pointing to his distorted experiences with the women in his life.

Women, Friedan says, were offered a choice: either succeed in a “masculine” career and be celibate and sexless, or be a housewife and mother, a truly feminine woman, and experience the love of husband and family. It is one or the other. Given that kind of choice, she points out, many women chose the latter.

Yet why would women accept such a choice? Friedan suggests that there were several factors, including the effect of the war years with the fears and loneliness engendered by that experience, the job discrimination women experienced after the war as they were fired to make way for returning veterans, and a fear made popular during this time that women were harming their children by a loss of femininity...

(The entire section is 607 words.)