The Feminine Mystique

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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....

(The entire section contains 7517 words.)

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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 on sexuality and the writings of sociologist and anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, and how the educational system fosters a belief in the concept. She also examines the reasons that the feminine mystique has existed for as long as it has, including the security or “safety” from freedom that retreating into the home provides and homemakers’ economic role as consumer.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the feminine mystique was especially powerful. Women everywhere tried to live up to it. College-educated women abandoned their career prospects and intellectual pursuits to marry and have babies. Women retreated to the home, closing themselves off from the outside world because they believed this would make them truly feminine and happy. It did not. Friedan, who discusses the self-actualization theories of humanistic psychologists, argues that when women completely immerse themselves in the domestic world, they lose their self-identity. They stop growing emotionally and intellectually. Such women are not persons first; as wives and mothers, they are the objects of others. If women are to be fulfilled, they must first be persons with interests and goals of their own. Friedan asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, abandoning the family is not necessary to the development of personhood and that women’s horizons must be expanded beyond home and family. Reasoning that domestic duties need not be all-consuming as the mystique demands, Friedan concludes her book with a plan of action for women, encouraging women to channel their energy into activities that foster personal growth: pursuit of career, development of personal interests and talents, and participation in politics.

Impact

The Feminine Mystique struck a deep chord in millions of American women who saw themselves and their experiences reflected in the experiences of Friedan and the Smith College class of 1942. This unsettling best-seller was cathartic: It raised the consciousness of women throughout the United States and spurred them to develop their own identities independent of their relationships with men. As these women discovered the various legal and cultural barriers in their way, they took up the cause of female equality and justice. The book was one of the focal points for the developing women’s movement, and its author, Friedan, became president of the newly formed National Organization for Women in 1966.

Bibliography

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 Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Includes a brief but helpful discussion of The Feminine Mystique which not only deals with its effect on American women but also notes the reasons that Friedan’s approach has been criticized by other feminists.

Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This book combines biographical material on a number of feminist activists of the late twentieth century. There are several chapters on Betty Friedan, including an entire chapter on The Feminine Mystique.

Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This history of the late twentieth century feminist movement incorporates a brief but cogent description of The Feminine Mystique, including its effects and its weaknesses. It also helps the reader get a grasp of this feminist movement as a whole.

Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. New York: Random House, 1976. Perhaps the most autobiographical of Friedan’s books, this one documents her activism in the women’s movement she helped found, showing the reader what occurred in Friedan’s life and work in the thirteen years after The Feminine Mystique was published.

Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women’s Rights. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1990. Part of the Contemporary Women series, this book is intended for grades six and up. It also, however, is a detailed account of Friedan’s life, including several references and valuable material on The Feminine Mystique and responses to the book.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. This volume on black women and feminism begins with a scathing critique of The Feminine Mystique as a racist, classist book that, while claiming to speak for all women, ignores the reality of many women’s lives.

Meyer, Donald. “Betty Friedan.” In Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to Present, edited by G. J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Whelehan, Imelda. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Post-Feminism.” New York: New York University Press, 1995.

The Feminine Mystique

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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.

Bibliography

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 Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Includes a brief but helpful discussion of The Feminine Mystique which not only deals with its effect on American women but also notes the reasons that Friedan’s approach has been criticized by other feminists.

Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This book combines biographical material on a number of feminist activists of the late twentieth century. There are several chapters on Betty Friedan, including an entire chapter on The Feminine Mystique.

Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This history of the late twentieth century feminist movement incorporates a brief but cogent description of The Feminine Mystique, including its effects and its weaknesses. It also helps the reader get a grasp of this feminist movement as a whole.

Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. New York: Random House, 1976. Perhaps the most autobiographical of Friedan’s books, this one documents her activism in the women’s movement she helped found, showing the reader what occurred in Friedan’s life and work in the thirteen years after The Feminine Mystique was published.

Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women’s Rights. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1990. Part of the Contemporary Women series, this book is intended for grades six and up. It also, however, is a detailed account of Friedan’s life, including several references and valuable material on The Feminine Mystique and responses to the book.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. This volume on black women and feminism begins with a scathing critique of The Feminine Mystique as a racist, classist book that, while claiming to speak for all women, ignores the reality of many women’s lives.

Meyer, Donald. “Betty Friedan.” In Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to Present, edited by G. J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Whelehan, Imelda. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Post-Feminism.” New York: New York University Press, 1995.

The Feminine Mystique

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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 followed man’s changing place in a world of wider opportunity. The movement followed from the insistence within the culture that women’s roles were static, that femaleness itself defined usefulness. In Friedan’s words, “Anatomy was her destiny; she might die giving birth to one baby, or live to be thirty- five, giving birth to twelve, while man controlled his destiny with that part of his anatomy which no other animal had: his mind.” Following World War II, women were, in essence, encouraged to relinquish ambitions for themselves and to resume domestic roles as suburban housewives. As the Cult of True Womanhood had constrained women with the rise of industrialization early in the nineteenth century, the feminine mystique constricted women’s lives in a reshaped industrialization of the mid-twentieth century.

The Feminine Mystique is typically referred to as the text that sparked the women’s movement in America in the 1960s. Its impact was immediate as well as long term. Friedan’s analysis shaped women’s expectations of themselves in education and careers and opened up the forum on women’s issues to many other authors and thinkers.

Women’s careers, with little change in responsibilities at home, led to the superwoman and supermom strategies analyzed in anthropologist Arlie Hochschild’s book The Second Shift (1989). Hochschild termed work in the home “the second shift” and documented the fact that most American women work an extra month each year. Friedan’s description of housework, “something that must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible,” dismissed the problems that result from not sharing the tasks. Hochschild analyzed the problems, noting, for example, that women in dual-career marriages routinely talk about sleep in the same way a starving person talks about food. Women juggling career, children, and husband are exhausted. Friedan’s book, with its call for creative and meaningful work for women, inevitably led to Hochschild’s study of what happens next.

Another feminist text that follows Friedan’s call for meaningful work is The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (1991). Wolf perceived images of women’s beauty to be the new chains that keep women from achieving their full potential. Indeed, Friedan’s description of the feminine mystique, the image of female perfection, also applies to the beauty myth. Wolf’s argument supports the manipulation of body image to drain self-respect and energy from women. Whereas Friedan’s study revealed women in America to be limited by constricting images of wife and mother, Wolf provided evidence that in the 1980’s and 1990’s, American women suffered from a cultural obsession with thinness that leads them to starve themselves. The suburbs that Friedan termed a “comfortable concentration camp” became the home of middle-class starvation.

Feminists and sociologists point out the absence of working- class women and women of color in Friedan’s book. Nevertheless, The Feminine Mystique shaped the argument for women’s liberation in white middle-class America.

Bibliography

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 Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Includes a brief but helpful discussion of The Feminine Mystique which not only deals with its effect on American women but also notes the reasons that Friedan’s approach has been criticized by other feminists.

Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This book combines biographical material on a number of feminist activists of the late twentieth century. There are several chapters on Betty Friedan, including an entire chapter on The Feminine Mystique.

Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This history of the late twentieth century feminist movement incorporates a brief but cogent description of The Feminine Mystique, including its effects and its weaknesses. It also helps the reader get a grasp of this feminist movement as a whole.

Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. New York: Random House, 1976. Perhaps the most autobiographical of Friedan’s books, this one documents her activism in the women’s movement she helped found, showing the reader what occurred in Friedan’s life and work in the thirteen years after The Feminine Mystique was published.

Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women’s Rights. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1990. Part of the Contemporary Women series, this book is intended for grades six and up. It also, however, is a detailed account of Friedan’s life, including several references and valuable material on The Feminine Mystique and responses to the book.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. This volume on black women and feminism begins with a scathing critique of The Feminine Mystique as a racist, classist book that, while claiming to speak for all women, ignores the reality of many women’s lives.

Meyer, Donald. “Betty Friedan.” In Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to Present, edited by G. J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Whelehan, Imelda. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Post-Feminism.” New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Form and Content

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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 opportunities in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s and who had distinguished themselves during the difficult war years, in both traditional and nontraditional occupations—had retreated in the 1950’s en masse to the suburbs to throw themselves into housewifery and motherhood? Second, why was it that these same women—many of whom had achieved their goals of split-level homes, upwardly mobile young husbands, and a number of well-groomed children—were so unaccountably depressed and dissatisfied with their lives? The search for the answer to these questions led Friedan to identify and finally to understand “the problem that has no name.”

Friedan answers the question of women’s retreat from public life by examining a plethora of social and cultural forces, which she believes are responsible for women’s diminished role in American society. Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead, higher education, women’s magazines, advertisers, and the needs of returning GI’s all come in for extensive analysis. Friedan argues that all these forces converged on society in general, and women in particular, to create what she calls the “feminine mystique”—the mistaken notion that all women’s needs should be met by fulfilling their basic roles of wife and mother. According to the feminine mystique, all other aspirations for women are suspect, and women who cannot fulfill themselves in the narrowly prescribed roles of the mystique are seen to be somehow deficient or sadly masculinized. The result of this glamorization of housekeeping, cooking, and wet-nursing is what Friedan calls “the comfortable concentration camp,” in which the nearly despondent suburban housewives of the 1950’s struggled, alone, to come to grips with the problem that has no name.

Why were these middle-class, educated women; these skilled and efficient housekeepers; these modern and thoroughly competent mothers; these adored and pampered wives; these consumers of most of the world’s discretionary goods not happy? On the face of it, it is a difficult question to answer. Friedan confronts it squarely:It is my thesis that as the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.

Friedan argues that women with some education, and perhaps some outside experience, simply cannot find in homemaking the be-all and end-all of their existences. Drawing heavily on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Friedan points out that “occupation: housewife” is not demanding enough to permit full realization of women’s potential, or satisfying enough on its own to provide the necessary self-esteem. Friedan does not suggest that women abandon the roles of wife and mother but she makes it clear that women must have some serious work of their own if they are to regain satisfaction in their lives. Vicariously living through the lives of their husbands and children is seen as injurious to all concerned. Not only do women suffer from a crippling lack of self-worth but also their children mature smothered into passivity and their husbands pay the price for their precarious dominance in ulcers and premature death.

While the problem is grave, it is not without a solution. The key is education, and the goal for women is the same as it is for men: serious, creative work. Women must quit wasting their talents in volunteerism and dilettante artistic endeavors and strive—in the same universe of paid, recognized, respected work as men—to find for themselves a job worth doing. The new life plan for women which Friedan suggests at the end of her book is a powerful evocation of the Protestant work ethic as seen through the existential sensibilities of the twentieth century.

The Feminine Mystique is divided into fourteen chapters: The first chapters identify the problem and its causes; the next examine a number of spurious solutions to the problem; and the last suggests a program for its genuine eradication. As a long-time writer for many of the women’s magazines she eventually indicts in The Feminine Mystique, Friedan’s style and methodology are clearly journalistic. Her copious and detailed notes make the book of considerable reference value, and her use of interview material gives the book that human interest which is so sought after in the media.

Form and Content

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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 that narrow role, Friedan, a free-lance magazine writer at the time, tried to publish her findings in several women’s magazines, including McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, and Redbook. Yet her conclusion that the problem was not the education women received but the circumscribed roles those educated women were asked to play afterward was too radical and threatening for these magazines, and Friedan realized that to get her ideas into print she would have to write a book. This book became The Feminine Mystique.

With driving passion, Friedan systematically analyzes her topic. She begins by describing “the problem that has no name,” the boredom, frustration, and lack of fulfillment felt by women trying to live up to the feminine mystique of the 1950’s. Most of the remainder of the book is an analysis of the forces that underlay the mystique: where it came from in the first place and why, ideologies used to bolster it, and how it was reinforced and presented to the postwar world as normal.

In the process she discusses Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic theory, who believed that ambitious women were driven by envy of the male penis and whose ideas were very popular during this time; Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who herself had led an unconventional life chronicling great varieties of cultural systems, but who could be read in women’s magazines advising women to fulfill their functions in the home; these women’s magazines themselves, which Friedan identifies as the primary popularizers of the feminine mystique; and other forces of the post-World War II American worldview.

She then moves on to analyze the damage the feminine mystique does, not only to the women themselves but also to their husbands and children. Departing from the then-popular notion that the problem is women’s inability to adjust and fit into their natural roles, Friedan argues for the radical idea that it is the role that is wrong. The feminine mystique is itself the problem. The book finishes, appropriately, with suggestions for how women can escape the trap of the mystique.

Context

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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 movement of the nineteenth century. Any perusal of the women’s magazines of the 1950’s, which can now be found in antique shops and flea markets, shows that Friedan was right about the propaganda these magazines were publishing.

Friedan’s naming of the problem helped women struggling under the feminine mystique to see that their problems were not uniquely their own, were not caused by their own inadequacies, but were the result of an ideology that simply did not fit the realities of most women’s lives. The corsets of the nineteenth century distorted the body shapes of the women who wore them, harming them in the process, and the feminine mystique was a social corset that distorted and harmed the lives and identities of the women of the 1950’s who tried to “wear” it.

Yet like the corset of the nineteenth century, which only wealthy women could afford to wear, the feminine mystique, while proposed as the model for all American women, was in reality something to which only middle-and upper-class women could aspire. Many women were not trapped in their homes, for their families’ economic survival required that they leave home every day to go to work. It fell to another feminist, the African American Bell Hooks, in Feminist Theory from Margin to Center (1984), to point out that Friedan, while seeming to speak for all women in The Feminine Mystique, was really speaking only for those primarily white, college-educated, middle-class women who had the economic luxury of aspiring to the feminine mystique.

Hooks’s critique is an important corrective to the picture painted by Friedan. The fact remains, however, that for the thousands of women who did find themselves trapped in the mythology of the feminine mystique of the 1950’s, Betty Friedan’s book was galvanizing and revolutionary. This book, and the effect it had on the women who read it, was one of the factors leading to the feminist movement that began in the late 1960’s.

Historical Context

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World War II
World War II was such a monumental event that it is commonly used as a cultural divider for the twentieth century. Friedan also cites World War II as the main impetus for the development of the feminine mystique. Throughout the book, Friedan compares many pre-war and post-war statistics and examples to support her points. For example, Friedan notes: ‘‘Fewer women in recent college graduating classes have gone on to distinguish themselves in a career or profession than those in the classes graduated before World War II, the Great Divide.’’ World War II was a traumatic event for many Americans. Soldiers witnessed unspeakable horrors on the battlefields and in German concentration camps, which carried out the dehumanization and extermination of millions of Jews and others. For the wives and families of soldiers, the war was a time of loneliness and fear, as many wondered whether their loved ones would return home safely. At the end of the war, both soldiers and civilians were shocked by the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan.

The Cold War
Several countries—including the communist Soviet Union—quickly followed suit by developing and testing their own atomic bombs. The 1947 Truman Doctrine, a policy that advocated having the United States back free countries against communist forces, ultimately helped increase the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States—and between communist states and democratic ones in general. This tension, which American citizens felt as the threat of nuclear war, was called the Cold War. This feeling increased as Congress approved the first peacetime draft in 1948, and as the United States fought in an undeclared war in Korea in the early 1950s.

The Postwar Baby Boom
The devastating experience of World War II and the fear of the Cold War caused many Americans to seek comfort by focusing on their homes and families. This is one of the many factors that attributed to a large baby boom—or large increase in birth rates—following the war. In fact, the United States was one of many industrialized countries that experienced a baby boom following World War II. Four countries in particular—the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—experienced birth rates that far surpassed pre-war levels. In the 1950s, fertility rates in the United States reached their highest levels in decades. Says Friedan: ‘‘By the end of the fifties, the United States birthrate was overtaking India's.’’

The Growth of Suburbs
The huge post-war economic boom also helped the American baby boom. For World War II veterans, this economic boom often paid off in cheap home loans from the government. Seeking a better life and an escape from the Cold War, many ex-G.I.s chose to use these loans to move their families into suburban housing developments, commonly known as suburbs. Although the introduction of the automobile in the early twentieth century had helped to increase the number of suburbs in the United States, the growth of suburbs exploded in the 1950s when the federal government expanded the interstate highway system. Suburbs, at least in theory, provided a comfortable conformity where American families could pursue a stable life and attempt to escape the many horrors of recent years, including the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

Literary Style

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Manifesto
A manifesto is a written declaration, which defines the author's beliefs. In the beginning of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan declares her belief that ‘‘the problem that has no name’’—the widespread unhappiness of women—has a very definite cause. Says Friedan, ‘‘It is my thesis that the core of the problem for women today is not sexual but a problem of identity—a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique.’’ Manifestos are often political in nature, and Friedan's manifesto is no different. As she demonstrates in her book, powerful forces in education, media, and the corporate world benefited from restricting women to the narrow roles of housewife and mother. Says Friedan: ‘‘A great many people have, or think they have, a vested interest in ‘Occupation: housewife.’’’ As a result, she notes that, if women follow her advice, they will need to deal with ‘‘the prejudices, mistaken fears, and unnecessary dilemmas’’ that will be offered as resistance to women's emancipation.

Point of View
Friedan narrates her book mainly from a first-person, or personal, point of view. Some of the time, this point of view is her own. Says Friedan, ‘‘Gradually I came to realize that the problem that has no name was shared by countless women in America.’’ In other cases, Friedan includes first-person quotes from some of these countless women. Says one woman, ‘‘I ask myself why I'm so dissatisfied. I've got my health, fine children, a lovely new home, enough money.’’ Friedan also includes first-person accounts from academics, professionals, and others to support her ideas. Even in the parts of the narration that do not use the characteristic ‘‘I’’ or ‘‘my’’ words, Friedan is narrating from a first-person point of view, because she is stating opinions that are based on her own experiences and observations. Says Friedan, ‘‘Judging from the women's magazines today, it would seem that the concrete details of women's lives are more interesting than their thoughts, their ideas, their dreams.’’

Tone
Friedan's tone, or attitude toward her subject matter, is assertive in The Feminine Mystique. Although she relies on an overwhelming variety of sources to back up her assertions, her word choice clearly conveys her anger at the various agents of the feminine mystique that have helped to oppress women. For example, when she is discussing the uninformed content of one of the women's magazines in the early 1960s, she notes that the ‘‘big, pretty magazine’’ is ‘‘fluffy and feminine,’’ even though it is aimed at many college-educated women. Friedan also employs several sarcastic phrases. For example, she accuses Margaret Mead, an eminent sociologist, of being a hypocrite by promoting a lifestyle that Mead does not live herself. Says Friedan: Mead's role ‘‘as the professional spokesman of femininity would have been less important if American women had taken the example of her own life, instead of listening to what she said in her books.’’ Friedan also expresses her anger by placing emphasis on certain words. For example, at one point she discusses the sex-directed educators, who helped to reinforce the image that intellectual women had bad sex lives. As Friedan notes, with these kinds of messages, she can see why several generations of American girls ‘‘fled college and career to marry and have babies before they became so ‘intellectual’ that, heaven forbid, they wouldn't be able to enjoy sex ‘in a feminine way.’’’

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249

  • Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: During the Cold War Americans live in fear of nuclear war. Government sources do not give American citizens accurate or complete information about the potential effects of nuclear war and instead use propaganda to ease the minds of Americans.

    Today: Many Americans live in fear of terrorist attacks, especially biological and chemical warfare. President George W. Bush and other government representatives make frequent addresses to U.S. citizens, apprising them of the potential dangers of weapons of mass destruction.

  • Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: Married women's happiness in the United States is equated mainly with sexual satisfaction, and many media sources print graphic and detailed descriptions of sex techniques and acts. However, premarital and extramarital sex is still viewed as taboo. In 1940, less than 4 percent of all births are to unmarried women.

    Today: Most research supports a balanced, healthy life—including work, nutrition, exercise, and sex—as the key to happiness for both men and women in the United States. Premarital and extramarital sex is common and does not register much shock except in conservative groups. In 1999, approximately one-third of all births are to unmarried women.

  • Mid 1940s-Early 1960s: Women are usually encouraged not to work in the same fields as men. Even when they do, they generally earn much less.

    Today: As the result of legislation from the last half of the twentieth century, many inequalities between men and women in the workforce have been eliminated, although in some areas, women still do not receive equal pay.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Sources
Bernays, Anne. ‘‘Love Her or Leave Her,’’ in Washington Post Book World, August 8, 1976, p. F7.

Brewer, Mary F. ‘‘Betty Friedan,’’ in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 246: Twentieth-Century American Cultural Theorists. Gale, 2001, pp. 128-39.

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. ‘‘The Major Myth of the Women's Movement,’’ in Dissent, Vol. 46, No. 4, Fall 1999, pp. 83-86.

Fava, Sylvia Fleis. Review of The Feminine Mystique, in the American Sociological Review, Vol. 28, No. 6, December 1963, pp. 1053-54.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Friedan, Betty. ‘‘Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition,’’ in The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 3-7.

Howard, Jane. ‘‘Tenth Anniversary Edition,’’ in New Republic, Vol. 170, No. 17, April 27, 1974, pp. 25-26.

Iannone, Carol. ‘‘What Moderate Feminists?’’ in Commentary, Vol. 99, June 1995, pp. 46–48.

Kay, Herma Hill. ‘‘Do We Suffer from a Feminist Mystique?’’ in the New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1981, pp. 3, 33.

Review of The Feminine Mystique, in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 3196, May 31, 1963, p. 391.

Review of The Feminine Mystique, in the Yale Review, Vol. 52, No. 3, Spring 1963, p. 12.

Sanborn, Sara. ‘‘Warm-Puppy Feminism,’’ in Saturday Review, Vol. 3, No. 21, July 24, 1976, p. 26.

Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien. ‘‘All the World's a Stage,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. 108, No. 23, December 18, 1981, pp. 726-28.

Tyrrell, R. Emmett, Jr. ‘‘The Worst Book of the Year,’’ in the American Spectator, Vol. 15, No. 2, February 1982, pp. 4-5.

Further Reading
Crittenden, Ann. The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued. Owl Books, 2002. Crittenden, a noted economics journalist, asserts that mothers are penalized for their childbearing role. Crittenden uses studies and financial facts to show that all mothers, regardless of occupational or marital status, are at an economic disadvantage to others in society. Crittenden offers solutions to this problem based on working models found in such diverse areas as Sweden and the United States military.

Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. Ballantine Books, 2002. In this engaging, narrative history of feminism, Freedman explores a wide range of issues, including race, politics, economics, and health, while providing her own critical interpretations of these topics.

Horowitz, Daniel. Betty Friedan and the Making of ‘‘The Feminine Mystique’’: The American Left, the Cold War and Modern Feminism. University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. In this noted biography of Friedan, Horowitz chronicles the development of Friedan's political and feminist ideas and challenges the popular assumption that Friedan was merely a suburban housewife when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. Horowitz examines the aspects of Friedan's life—such as her labor activism—that Friedan did not mention in her book, and explores the cultural and political climate that encouraged her to bury these facts about her life.

Schneir, Miriam, ed. Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings World War II to the Present. Vintage Books, 1004. Schneir's impressive anthology collects many contemporary feminist writings from the second half of the twentieth century, including several excerpts from longer works. Schneir also provides commentary on the writings.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

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 Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Includes a brief but helpful discussion of The Feminine Mystique which not only deals with its effect on American women but also notes the reasons that Friedan’s approach has been criticized by other feminists.

Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This book combines biographical material on a number of feminist activists of the late twentieth century. There are several chapters on Betty Friedan, including an entire chapter on The Feminine Mystique.

Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This history of the late twentieth century feminist movement incorporates a brief but cogent description of The Feminine Mystique, including its effects and its weaknesses. It also helps the reader get a grasp of this feminist movement as a whole.

Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. New York: Random House, 1976. Perhaps the most autobiographical of Friedan’s books, this one documents her activism in the women’s movement she helped found, showing the reader what occurred in Friedan’s life and work in the thirteen years after The Feminine Mystique was published.

Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women’s Rights. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1990. Part of the Contemporary Women series, this book is intended for grades six and up. It also, however, is a detailed account of Friedan’s life, including several references and valuable material on The Feminine Mystique and responses to the book.

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. This volume on black women and feminism begins with a scathing critique of The Feminine Mystique as a racist, classist book that, while claiming to speak for all women, ignores the reality of many women’s lives.

Meyer, Donald. “Betty Friedan.” In Portraits of American Women: From Settlement to Present, edited by G. J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Whelehan, Imelda. Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to “Post-Feminism.” New York: New York University Press, 1995.

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