The Feminine Mystique

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

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 the women themselves but also by the larger society.

In the early 1960’s, concern increased over this discontent, which Friedan calls the “Problem that Has No Name.” Sociologists and psychologists studied this “women’s problem,” looking for causes and solutions. Women’s magazines presented readers with the latest information and advice. Often the discontent was attributed to a flaw within the woman, which might be remedied by psychoanalysis. Some researchers blamed less-than-perfect husbands and children. Some recommended having a baby to “fill the emptiness.” A few experts even suggested that since college-educated women tended to become restless homemakers, women’s education should prepare them for domesticity rather than for careers. Superficial lifestyle changes were recommended. Women were told to dye their hair blond since “blondes have more fun.”

Friedan concludes that the real problem is rooted in the feminine mystique, the post-World War II American ideology that defines the ideal feminine woman exclusively in terms of traditional marriage and motherhood. According to the feminine mystique, the ideal feminine woman is passive, selfless, and completely devoted to her family. She needs and wants nothing more than to marry and have babies and her own home. Ultimate fulfillment is realized as the ideal woman cheerfully cooks, cleans, and serves her family. The unfortunate woman who wants a career is to be pitied and feared. She is unfeminine, her desires “unnatural.” Perhaps, she is even neurotic.

Friedan develops the concept of the feminine mystique and examines how it colors perceptions of the women’s movement of the late 1800’s, how it relates to Sigmund Freud’s theories...

(The entire section is 1310 words.)