The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Summary



The first printing of The Feminine Mystique provided women with a virtual social mirror. Chapter by chapter, the coercive power of socially prescribed gender roles is revealed. The mystique is first recognized in Chapters 1 and 2, as women experience it in their everyday lives. Chapter 3 shows how women, insulated and protected, are given no space to experience identity crisis—which itself constitutes a crisis for women because they are not allowed to truly grow up. That is, the rebellions, large and small, that constitute the adolescent boy's separation from his family of origin and his reaching for independence are not accessible in girls' experiences. Rather, girls are taught to conform by repeating their mothers. The stirring fourth chapter recalls accomplished 19th-century women from all backgrounds—the first-wave feminists. Most started out as abolitionists (people who favor the abolition of a particular institution) or suffragettes (women who worked to get voting rights). All simply believed in equality between the sexes. Some had men in their lives—educated and accomplished fathers, brothers, and husbands—whose examples were catalysts for these women. Others overcame great odds and struck out on their own. These women came together from all parts of the country and all walks of life. Yet somehow, by mid-century, they were largely forgotten.

Chapters 5 and 6 present the prevailing psychological and sociological arguments that support the notion of "anatomy as destiny" and the pervasive logic that sex roles preserve the natural order of culture. These roles assume women live out their biological functions as sexual partners for men and mothers of their children. Chapter 7 demonstrates how educational practices reinforce women's identities as mothers and homemakers, while Chapter 8 looks at the contribution of historical circumstances, especially World War II, to the 1950s' idealization of femininity. Chapter 9, titled "The Sexual Sell," alludes to prostitution. It describes the capitalist perversion of women's sexuality and women's desire. Chapters 10–13 describe in detail the price paid for the taking over of women's desire: the perversion of family relations and the draining of women's identity and opportunities. The final chapter offers relief and reason for optimism in the formulation of change. It raises the notion that culture's health depends first and foremost on the health and healing wholeness of women's identities. An ardent believer in the potential for change, Betty Friedan stresses personal gumption, federal legislation, and a social commitment to transformation.

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