The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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The primary subjects of The Feminine Mystique are middle-class American wives and mothers living in the early 1960s. These women had married and had children during the post–World War II era, a time of rising standards of living and a booming childbirth rate. The return of soldiers from the war, combined with increased economic opportunities for men throughout the 1950s, meant that many women were expected to happily leave work and become homemakers once they married. However, in this time of plenty, many homemakers were unhappy, and they couldn't articulate why.

American author Betty Friedan set out to find the reasons for the emotional and mental malaise of these women. Her book The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, is an analysis of psychology, media, and advertising that addresses the forces that shaped the concept of the stay-at-home wife-mother in America and the problems it created for women. The book sparked the feminist movement of the 1960s, selling millions of copies. Friedan went on to become one of the founders and the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her activism helped further the cause of women's rights until her death in 2006.

1. The Feminine Mystique began as a series of interviews that found a majority of women were unhappy with their lives.

Friedan graduated from Smith College, a women's college, in 1942. For her 15th reunion in 1957, she conducted a survey of her classmates, including questions about their levels of happiness and states of mind. She found the majority of them felt ignored and unchallenged and had turned to psychoanalysis and tranquilizers to deal with their unhappiness. The survey became a series of interviews, which Friedan eventually turned into The Feminine Mystique.

2. The Feminine Mystique launched what was called "second-wave feminism."

Friedan is often said to have led the feminist movement, but many critics think there was a feminist movement before her work was published. Known as "first-wave feminism," this movement occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and focused on voting rights for women. "Second-wave feminism" began in the 1960s, perhaps triggered and certainly moved forward by The Feminine Mystique, which defined women's dissatisfaction with their status within the patriarchy. The movement pushed for equal pay for women, legalized abortion, and maternity leave, among other demands. Third-wave feminism took off in the 1990s as a more global and multicultural movement. The fourth wave focuses on gender and intersectionality, a term used to describe the existence of interdependent social categorizations such as race, class, and gender in a single person, individual, or group.

3. Readers claimed "divorce and juvenile delinquency would increase tremendously" as a result of The Feminine Mystique.

After The Feminine Mystique was published, there was a huge backlash against the book and Friedan. One letter to Life magazine claimed, "If most mothers followed her advice, divorce and juvenile delinquency would increase tremendously." Friedan responded to three groups who criticized her.

  1. To stay-at-home mothers, she said, "For them it's easier—they can always say what a great actress or writer they could have been if only they'd kept at it, but of course they gave it up to make a home."
  2. To the women working away from the home, she noted, "Capital C Career Women seem to resent my book, maybe because I say that all women should try to do what the Career Women are already doing."
  3. To men who objected, she said, "This man's-world-woman's-world bit is for the birds. Men aren't barred from growing as women are. Yet men are victims of the feminine mystique too because it keeps them from knowing women as human beings."

Some reviewers thought the book was filled with "sweeping generalities"; others believed it didn't go far enough in advocating that women change their lives. And still others pointed out the changes Friedan was advocating were possible for middle-class women who had college degrees and were comfortably well-off, but much less so for the poor and less educated.

4. The Feminine Mystique has been listed as one of the most harmful books of the last two centuries by conservatives.

The conservative magazine Human Events asked a group of 15 conservative policy leaders and scholars to put together a list of the 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. The group included professors, publishers, and conservatives such as American lawyer Phyllis Schlafly, known for her strident antigay views. Number one on the list, not unexpectedly, was German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's The Communist Manifesto, the definitive work on the theories of communism. The Feminine Mystique came in at number seven, just after another Karl Marx tome, Das Kapital.

5. Friedan's book focused on what she called "the problem that has no name."

The Feminine Mystique addressed the generation of women who came of age and married after World War II. These women lived in suburbia, raised children, and did not work. They felt they should have been happy, and yet many weren't. Friedan wrote of what they were feeling:

The problem 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?"

This was what Friedan called "the problem that has no name": the dissatisfaction with a life that on the surface was full and happy and yet did not challenge or fulfill women.

6. Many critics believe The Feminine Mystique is homophobic.

Friedan, according to some critics, was "puritanical" in matters of sexuality. She described homosexuality as "spreading like a murky smog over the American scene." She believed it was in part to be blamed on the feminine mystique, which "glorified and perpetuated the name of femininity and passive, childlike immaturity which is passed on from mother to son, as well as to daughters." Friedan called lesbians "the lavender menace" in the 1960s, but in 1977 she reconsidered her position and pledged her support to the lesbian rights movement.

7. One editor refused to publish The Feminine Mystique in article form, claiming "only the most neurotic housewife will identify with this."

When Friedan began compiling the surveys that led to the writing of The Feminine Mystique, she was working as a freelance writer, having been fired from a staff job because she was pregnant with her second child. She planned to publish her work as a magazine article, but magazines weren't interested. She sent the piece, titled "Are Women Wasting Their Time in College?" to McCall's magazine and to Redbook. Both rejected it, with a male Redbook editor responding that the writer "must be going off her rocker. Only the most neurotic housewife will identify with this." Friedan spent the next five years crafting the article into a book.

8. Friedan believed The Feminine Mystique helped liberate men as well as women.

In an interview with Playboy magazine, Friedan explained the liberation of women that began with The Feminine Mystique was also a liberation of men. She noted a masculine mystique had also developed that held men back as the feminine mystique did women:

Men had to be supermen: stoic, responsible meal tickets. Dominance is a burden ... when things began to change, men were released from the enormous pressure.

She stated this "burden of dominance" was no longer necessary in society for survival, and it required men to "suppress their feelings and their sensitivities to life." She felt women's liberation could liberate men from their age-old roles as well.

9. The U.S. Department of Labor has considered The Feminine Mystique as one of the top 10 books that helped shape work in America.

In 2013, for its centennial, the U.S. Department of Labor created a list of 100+ Books That Shaped Work in America. One of the books on the list was The Feminine Mystique, along with How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) by American writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by American author John Steinbeck. The U.S. Department of Labor went on to choose their top 10 from the list, and The Feminine Mystique made the cut.

10. Critics have called The Feminine Mystique both racist and classist.

Critics have noted The Feminine Mystique focuses on problems most common among upper- and middle-class white women. African American feminist theorist bell hooks argued Friedan ignored the fact that sexual oppression affected women of color and women in poverty far more. hooks pointed out:

She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women.

And in 2011, critic Stephanie Coontz stated, "I think Friedan was right to talk about the importance of meaningful work in people's lives, but I think we need to pay much more attention to differences in class options in discussing male-female relations today than she did back in 1963."

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