The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan has been on my radar for years as a classic feminist tome that I should probably read. However, I was always intimidated by the length. I was also afraid that it would be dated and difficult to read. It wasn’t until I saw it on my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List that I had the motivation I needed to pick it up. It’s easy for me to take the opportunities I have today for granted. Books like The Feminine Mystique remind me of a very different society where the limits and expectations put on women were much more restrictive. I was impressed by Friedan’s writing, and I found large sections of the book to be fascinating and eyeopening. Even though other sections felt a little repetitive and dated, I am glad I read it.
I had heard the story in history class that women had stepped up to work in the factories during WWII but then returned to the home when the soldiers returned and displaced them. What I did not learn about was the incredible pressure put on women to fulfill the “feminine” role of wife and mother. I’d always thought of women’s progression as relatively linear throughout history, but Friedan compares the decades before the war with the decades after and reveals a giant step backwards for women.
Friedan states in her book that forcing smart, educated women into such a limited role as “housewife” makes them unhappy, hinders their development, and also makes their families unhappy. Women were forced to stifle their ambition and goals. They were going directly from being wholly dependent on their fathers to wholly dependent on their husbands. Their only goals were to get married and have babies. In this way, they could not fully mature and grow into adulthood. So women invested their lives into that of their husbands and children, overly involving themselves in both. And when their children grew up, the women had nothing left. In the years after WWII, women were marrying earlier and having more children than before the war. After gaining educational opportunities, women were dropping out or refusing opportunities in further education because it would make it more difficult to find a husband.
One of the influences on the feminine mystique that I found fascinating were the articles in women’s magazines. Before the war, there were stories of women working, flying planes, and finding their own destinies. If men were involved at all, they were not the central point. After the war, almost all the stories involved women looking for men and married women trying to make their relationships better. Friedan used to write for these magazines and she said the male editors would refuse any content that did not directly relate to homemaking. Thus, there were no articles about the rest of the world.
Another influence that specifically surprised me was education. Institutions of higher education were under some pressure because education was being blamed for making women unfeminine and unsuitable housewives. Some colleges instituted required “Homemaker” courses for female students. These courses often hammered the opinion that women could be a celibate scholar or a happy mother with a home but certainly not both.
Friedan spends one whole chapter on advertising and how the feminine mystique was purposefully manipulated to sell products to housewives by pretending that these products would give women’s lives more meaning. With some insider memos regarding advertising strategy, it is clear how advertisers viewed and used women.
In addition to these pressures, women who were unhappy or simply wanted more were accused by doctors and psychologists of being unfeminine or neurotic. Real, feminine women were wholly fulfilled by their roles as mothers and wives.
Friedan is a good writer with a strong and meaningful message, and I liked most of her book. However, it is certainly not perfect. Her chapters on psychoanalysis and therapists felt dated and hard to read. I realize that Friedan was fighting against a storm of “professional opinions” on the value of the feminine mystique, but all her talk of Freud as well as housewives causing Schizophrenia and homosexuality was a little much. Although I found Friedan convincing, I often wished for more statistics and less anecdotal evidence. In addition, Friedan has been fairly criticized in the past for ignoring poor and minority women. There is no doubt that this book is a personal discussion of herself and her contemporaries. Although many women can probably relate to it, it was not written for all women.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.