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The Feminine Mystique | Context


Betty Friedan came of age as World War II (1939–45) came to a close. Through her college years and beyond, she became a committed observer and fierce critic of postwar America. Recovery amidst the horrors of this particular war—which saw the intensive bombing of civilian populations, the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Nazi extermination camps—brought many changes to American life.

Postwar Economics

The phenomenal growth of the economy in postwar America improved life for many. The U.S. gross national product (GNP) increased by a third between 1940 and 1950, and nearly doubled again by 1960. The G.I. Bill (Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944), which provided services and assistance for returning World War II veterans, was partly responsible for a housing boom and the quadrupled production of automobiles from 1946 to 1955. In both cases, the move to the suburbs and the postwar baby boom bolstered production. Television had an impact on habits and social patterns as well. There were fewer than 17,000 television sets in American homes in 1946, and three years later, 250,000 sets a month were sold.

In contrast to this seeming prosperity, Friedan views this postwar economic growth as the first barrier to freedom of choice for women. In The Feminine Mystique, housewives, as the principle consumers, are described as the targeted victims of advertising agencies, based on the belief that shopping consumes women's creative energies. Moreover, advertising creates a desire that cannot be fulfilled; there is always something else to buy that will make life better and more exciting. This focus on material objects becomes a form of oppression for women, because it takes the place of their striving for education or self-realization—which actually puts women in a threatening, unstable position.

Postwar Politics and Culture

The Yalta Conference in 1945, a meeting among the major allied victors, was seen by many as the opening volley in the Cold War. Americans had long feared Soviet subversions within the United States and grew increasingly vigilant about communist influence from within. By 1950 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), investigating suspected communist sympathizers under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, exerted tremendous power and wrecked many livelihoods and lives in its fevered sweep of (often) innocent people. In this climate, pressure to live a "normal" middle-class American life was high, and the accepted idea of a normal middle-class life entailed the narrow roles for women Friedan rails against.

But there were also encouraging signs of social progress. President Harry S. Truman pressed for a version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, called the Fair Deal, believing the federal government had a role in economic opportunity and social stability. A series of antidiscrimination and antisegregation laws were passed in the decades after World War II, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. And beneath the quiet and conforming middle-class lives bred by 1950s prosperity, experiments in literature, painting, and music pushed at the boundaries between pop and high culture. The Feminine Mystique contributed to the rise of second-wave feminism—the increasingly radical movement for women's rights that began in the 1960s.

First- and Second-Wave Feminism

In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan introduces the feminists of the 19th century as women of courage and passion, sacrificing much and offending many as they pushed hard against the gender currents of their times. She describes these women in "an age when passion in woman was as forbidden as intelligence" and recalls their models were men: "the only image they had of a full and free human being." Emerging in an age of industrialization and liberalized politics, these first-wave feminists found their causes in the temperance (anti-alcohol) and abolitionist (antislavery) movements. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 (the first women's rights convention), attended by 300 men and women, is most often seen as the beginning of the drive for the equality of women. Suffrage, or the right to vote, was the immediate focus. By the late 19th century, the efforts for equal rights came together in a self-conscious movement. The idea of a woman's place being in the home was challenged as women found their voices for public speaking, engaged in public demonstrations, and as a result, served time in jail. Education for women equal to what men received was also a central focus.

The Feminine Mystique kick-started the second-wave feminism in America. Friedan, in the mid-20th century, had intellectual roots and political affiliations similar to those of her first-wave predecessors. In the early 1940s she left academic life and headed to New York, where she worked as a journalist for a radical labor union. Many of her friends and associates were communists, and she wrote on the rights of workers and discrimination against women. Friedan's stand against discrimination remained firm, but it focused more explicitly on the fair treatment of women, although she was criticized for focusing too exclusively on middle-class white women.

Second-wave feminism was tied to the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s, and these feminists worked to form women-only organizations, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Friedan's contribution may be seen as a transformation of the limiting notion of "anatomy is destiny" turned on its head in the rallying cry of the second wave: "the personal is the political." That is, the second-wave feminists recognized how the injustices women experienced in their personal lives (lack of access to education and career opportunities, inequities within family roles, physical and sexual abuse, and so on) are connected to larger political and social structures that serve to maintain their oppression.

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