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.)

The Feminine Mystique

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

Friedan defined the feminine mystique as the myth of female fulfillment based on domestic labor and proposed that the myth is based on a vision of woman not as a whole person but only in terms of her sexual role. This limiting view of woman, which further suggested that a woman’s value could only be expressed through her potential as wife and mother, discouraged women from pursuing educations or professions, thus effectively trapping them within the myth. According to Friedan, post-World War II economic and social factors combined to force American women to confine their interests and energies solely to serving their husbands and children through their roles as housewives, a situation that led women to devalue themselves and their contributions to society. She based this assessment in part on extensive interviews with women, many of whom were highly educated and were plagued with feelings of frustration, guilt, and inadequacy because they were not completely satisfied by the rewards of homemaking. These women felt isolated from one another and alienated from society by their failure to conform to the myth. Friedan asserted that women must look outside the narrow role assigned to them by the feminine mystique in order to discover identity and fulfillment.


Behm, Barbara. Betty Friedan: Speaking Out for Women’s Rights. Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1992.

Blau, Justine. Betty Friedan. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Part of the American Women of Achievement series, this book is intended for grades five and up....

(The entire section is 659 words.)

The Feminine Mystique

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

Betty Friedan began researching The Feminine Mystique as a result of her own questions with regard to her roles as worker, wife, and mother. Her first research was a questionnaire she developed for the members of her graduating class from Smith College. She then examined the writings of psychologists, philosophers, and literary theorists; spoke with magazine editors, marketing researchers, and theoretical experts on women; and, most important, interviewed eighty women—students, young mothers, and middle-aged women—facing issues of self-definition. The endnotes attest Friedan’s broad-based research during the five years she spent writing the book.

The Feminine Mystique supports a thesis that women need meaningful work in order to be healthy adults. Friedan documents a trend in American life: Since World War II ended, women in the United States had been conditioned away from accepting responsibility for themselves outside marriage and motherhood. Friedan asserts that American women are in “chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices. They are not easily seen and not easily shaken off.”

Mistaken ideas include Sigmund Freud’s theories of women’s motivation. Friedan argues against the Freudian assumption that women are motivated by penis envy, a longing for that which their bodies lack, and find fulfillment by transferring to their sons all their own suppressed ambitions. She notes that in American popular culture, Freud’s theories “settled everywhere, like fine volcanic ash.”

Women’s energies were then channeled into approved areas by educators who accepted Freud’s theories as scientific fact, those whom Friedan terms “sex-directed educators.” The focus of education for women, therefore, often became training to help women adjust not to an intellectual challenge but to their feminine roles. Mistaken ideas about women’s education preparing them for the roles of housewife and mother shaped college curricula in the 1950’s, with courses on “Mate Selection,” “Adjustment to Marriage,” and “Education for Family Living.” Friedan cites Margaret Mead’s concern for men’s intellectual life and accomplishments being stunted by early marriage: “The father’s term paper gets all mixed up with the babies’ [sic] bottle.” Friedan then asks the question implied within Mead’s concern: What cost to women accompanies early domesticity?

Friedan also addresses the economic interests upholding the housewife/mother definition of woman. Although Friedan asserts that business and industry do not work as a conspiracy, she provides evidence from reports and interviews from the director of the Institute for Motivational Research in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Friedan summarizes and analyzes reports and surveys that include this message: “The store will sell her more . . . if it will understand that the real need she is trying to fill by shopping is not anything she can buy there.” Explained in the chapter are needs for creativity (solution: buy a new appliance, a cake mix), learning and advancement (solution: buy a new set of symbols to match the husband’s higher income), privacy (solution: buy a second car), sexual frustration (solution: “put the libido back into advertising”). Friedan notes that advertisers are not responsible for putting women into the narrowed role of housewife and mother but have strongly influenced women to stay there.

Friedan summarizes the history of the women’s movement in the United States, tracing the struggle for equal rights that...

(The entire section is 1492 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The year 1963 was an unusually significant one for American women: President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women reported its findings, after two years of extensive research and debate; Congress finally passed the Equal Pay Act, assuring women equal pay for equal work, at least in the jobs under its jurisdiction; and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a ground-breaking book which challenged all the conventional notions of women’s place in society as it was commonly understood in the post-World War II era.

In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan seeks to answer two fundamental questions. First, why was it that women—who had struggled so hard for educational and career...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Feminine Mystique is a classic of the early years of the late twentieth century’s feminist movement. Its title is also the term coined by Betty Friedan to define the post-World War II image of women, which suggested that all women should find their female fulfillment as happy, contented housewives and in their families and homes.

In a 1957 survey of her Smith College classmates from fifteen years earlier, Friedan notices a real clash between the educations women were receiving and the ways they were expected to live out the rest of their lives. Having attempted to live up to this feminine ideal herself and experienced at first hand the vague sense of unease, boredom, and frustration many women felt in...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

This was a book that had to be written. Chafing under a limited vision of what they could and should be, American middle-class women were bound to explode in frustration. Friedan’s book named the unnamed source of their dissatisfaction, analyzed it, and made sense of where it came from, identifying it as a social phenomenon rather than a manifestation of natural womanhood. This analysis gave them a glimpse of a way out, providing the vehicle they needed.

Thousands of women saw themselves in the pages of this book. The phenomenon named by Friedan was real; it was a social force that arose, as she says, both out of the experiences of World War II and out of fears of the gains women had been making since the feminist...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

World War II
World War II was such a monumental event that it is commonly used as a cultural divider for the twentieth...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

A manifesto is a written declaration, which defines the author's beliefs. In the beginning of The...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: During the Cold War Americans live in fear of nuclear war. Government sources do not give...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Research recent female fertility studies and discuss how the findings may affect women who wish to have both a career and a family....

(The entire section is 222 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • In her controversial book The Second Stage (1981), Friedan defines a new mystique, the feminist mystique, which she says is...

(The entire section is 324 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Bernays, Anne. ‘‘Love Her or Leave Her,’’ in Washington Post Book World, August 8, 1976, p....

(The entire section is 485 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Behm, Barbara. Betty Friedan: Speaking Out for Women’s Rights. Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1992.

Blau, Justine. Betty Friedan. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. Part of the American Women of Achievement series, this book is intended for grades five and up. Yet far more than an interesting storybook about Betty Friedan, this volume goes into depth both on Friedan’s life and on the feminist movement she helped spark. It also includes several pages on The Feminine Mystique—its writing, its content, and responses to it.

Chafe, William H. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the Twentieth...

(The entire section is 451 words.)