A few months ago one of my male colleagues asked what feminist books I recommend he read and it occurred to me that I had missed a couple of the heavy hitters. That’s when I decided to read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, often credited with kicking off the second wave of feminism in the early 1960s.
This work of nonfiction was an incredibly well-timed antidote. An antidote to what Friedan calls the problem with no name. “The problem,” she explains, “lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”(15).
This problem with no name intensified after WW II, when women were herded back into the home, manipulated into believing that becoming a wife and mother were the highest and only true options. This message bombarded women from every angle, family, education, media; everywhere a girl and woman looked, this message was reinforced, along with the warning that having a career outside the home was a bad and sorry idea. How horrible to miss out on the total fulfillment of domesticity, especially with all the newly minted automated appliances? What could be more fulfilling to women than looking lovely for their husbands, satisfying their sexual desires? What could be more fulfilling than devoting yourself to your children in toto? Giving your life over to them, living for and through them?
It followed that women started marrying younger and having more children and those who attended college were instructed that their highest aim was not a career in their chosen field, not to pursue their own ambition and destiny, but to funnel themselves into a spouse and children. To become a servant. The new “sex-directed educators” on campuses nationwide made sure women were prepared for their true calling, that of housewife and mother. (Check out the 2003 movie Mona Lisa Smile.)
Meanwhile, a Smith College graduate was scratching her head and wondering why she felt so empty and restless. This woman, Betty Friedan, decided to check in with other Smith graduates, and yes, she was not alone! Millions of women out there were miserable, even though they supposedly had it all.
Enter The Feminine Mystique. I can’t help but envision the book coming to the rescue, wearing a cape, landing on millions of kitchen tables across the country, women hungrily devouring its contents. Women all over the US realized they were not alone, that how they were feeling and the struggles they faced, those they’d been trying to drink and drug away, were real and prevalent.
In the chapter The Forfeited Self, Friedan asks,
“What happens if the environment frowns on that courage and strength – sometimes virtually forbids, and seldom actually encourages that growth in the child who is a girl? What happens if human growth is considered antagonistic to femininity, to fulfillment as a woman, to women’s sexuality? The feminine mystique implies a choice between “being a woman” or risking the pains of human growth. Thousands of women, reduced to biological living by their environment, lulled into a false sense of anonymous security in their comfortable concentration camps, have made a wrong choice. The irony of their mistaken choice is this: the mystique holds out “feminine fulfillment” as the prize for being only a wife and mother. But it is no accident that thousands of suburban housewives have not found that prize. The simple truth would seem to be that women will never know sexual fulfillment and the peak experience of human love until they are allowed and encouraged to grow to their full strength as human beings. For according to the new psychological theorists, self-realization, far from preventing the highest sexual fulfillment, is inextricably linked to it. And there is more than theoretical reason to believe that this is as true for women as for men”(317).
Can you not see women in their curlers and housedresses sitting over a cup of coffee, or swig of whiskey, reading intently? The scent, taste and feel of liberation washing over them?
4 Big Problems with The Feminine Mystique, an article in a 2013 issue of The Atlantic, outlines legitimate criticism with this blockbuster. Serious, real criticism, that this book was both racist and classist with Friedan only focusing on middle and upper-class white women at the time. She did not expand her look at sexist discrimination beyond this group of what can be viewed as educated, privileged white women. Readers will also cringe at what are clearly homophobic statements and sentiments in the book, for which Friedman openly and earnestly apologized years later.
Also, some of the so-called experts and some of the research she based her arguments on have since been challenged, but at the time, she worked with what appeared valid. It is necessary to consider all of this and I appreciate those who, on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, didn’t let the celebratory aspects mask where Betty Friedan fell short.
Along with the criticism, it’s important to take stock of the total dedication, tireless hard work and significant accomplishments of Betty Friedan and other second wave feminists, which this ambitious book ignited. These women, with Friedan front and center, formed the National Organization of Women (NOW) and did much to advance the rights of women, notably women’s reproductive rights. For this and more, Friedan and others deserve huge kudos.
After all these years, much of this book makes me want to stand up and shout yes, probably because I am a direct offspring of this mystique manipulation. Proclamations such as this, in her chapter A New Life Plan for Women, “The first step in that plan is to see housework for what it is – not a career, but something that must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once a woman stops trying to make cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, “something more,” she can say “no, I don’t want a stove with rounded corners, I don’t want four different kinds of soap.” She can say “no” to those mass daydreams of the women’s magazines and television, “no” to the depth researchers and manipulators who are trying to run her life. Then, she can use the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher and all the automatic appliances, and even the instant mashed potatoes for what they are truly worth – to save time that can be used in more creative ways”(342).
In the introduction to the 2001 reprint of The Feminine Mystique, Anna Quindlen says,
“I expected to revisit this book as I would a period piece, interesting, worthy of notice and of homage, yet a little dated and obvious as well…as my mother had been, in a different world, at a different time, under hugely different circumstances, I was enrapt. Four decades later, millions of individual transformations later, there is still so much to learn from this book about how sex and home and work and norms are used to twist the lives of women into weird and unnatural shapes”(XIII).
Worth the read, for sure.
©Maria Dintino 2018
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems With The Feminine Mystique.” The Atlantic. 12 Feb 2013.