A fiftieth anniversary edition of the trailblazing women's reference shares anecdotes and interviews that were originally collected in the early 1960s to inspire women to develop their intellectual capabilities and reclaim lives beyond period conventions.
Betty Friedan describes a generation of women who were manipulated into thinking that motherhood and housewifery is the be all and end all for women. She explained that in the 50's and 60's women defined themselves solely through their children and husbands instead of developing an identity of their own. Women were seen as childlike with limited capabilities and, thus, education for females was dismissed as unnecessary. However, many women were unsatisfied with their only career choice as wife and mother. They were desperate for a sense of meaning and true identity. Some attempted to fill this void by using sexual promiscuity, focusing on their appearance, and/ or buying an endless amount of material things for their homes. This is still true for a lot of women today.
Friedan thinks that women tried to elevate the status of housework and child rearing by obsessing over natural child birth, breast feeding, and homemade bread and clothes. Mothers became so over involved in the lives of their offspring that the kids could hardly develop into independent human beings. Researchers later found that children are actually happier, and develop better, when the mother has a career, or other purpose besides her children. Unfortunately, women seem to be falling into the same trap again. The media seems to be telling them, once again, that unless they give up everything and turn into helicopter-parents, their children are doomed for failure. It almost seems as if there is a second wave of this back- to-the- home trend. I see many women that are so preoccupied with their children that it appears as if they are trying to live their lives through them. Just think about shows like Toddlers& Tiaras- is it really the dream of those little girls to be presented like a show pony for the adults?
I have to admit, there have been times when I, too, have thought about how idyllic it would be to have a big family, prepare all their organic food at home, and even (gasp!) home school the children. But after reading this book, there is no way that I will ever give up my education and career. Defining yourself through your children and husband is simply not the way to live a fulfilling life. This book may have been a bit dated and repetitive at times, but obviously our generation hasn't gotten the message yet, and it can't hurt to hear it more than once. In my opinion, they should really make this work required reading in high school. It's very powerful.
Although Quindlen instead found herself enrapt, this quote is exactly how I felt about the majority of this book. It gave me a lot of insight into a time period in American history, but did not resonate with my modern ideas of equality. I feel grateful for the changes that built on this book and its incredible importance, but I cannot ignore the tunnel-like focus on middle class white women and instances of explicit homophobia.
There are certainly a lot of pieces that made me think about what exactly my expectations are from an equal society and how an inability to pursue a passion stagnates and frustrates a person.
Happy to have read about where we were as a society 50-60 years ago and reflect on where we are now - both the good and the bad.
There are elements in the book that I strongly agree with. For example living through only your husband and kids’ lives will end up a frustrating mess for everyone involved. Pursuing interests outside of your spouse and kids is crucial to remind yourself that you are your own person outside of their sphere. However, I think that comparing being a stay-at-home mom to being sent to a concentration camp is a bit much. I understand what she’s saying, the similarity lies in the stripping away of outside relationships and interests, but it’s taking it too far to compare the two. I know that many “stay-at-home” moms in the 1950s were addicted to tranquiller and alcohol because of a deep-seated unhappiness, but getting married and having children is a choice. Being shipped off to a concentration camp and watching your fellow prisoners be killed is not.
In the past 50 years expectations of women have changed and there are now different factors affecting the roles women take. It's much more socially acceptable for women to work and for men help with household chores than it was in the 1950s. Regardless of whether or not the woman stays home with the kids, the roles seem to have become more equalized.
I love the role that pop culture has played in continuing to change views. TV shows like Parks and Recreation and The Good Wife continue to discuss women’s evolving roles without letting that become the central focus of the show. They are shown in positions of power in the working world but that’s never an issue on the shows. In this season of Grey’s Anatomy they’ve discussed the difficulties working moms face and the pressure put on women to have children when they don’t want to.
Women also now have the option of working from home, something that was unheard of in the 1960s. A woman can run a photography or freelance business from a home office instead of from a corporate office. Options like these have changed the playing field, but that doesn’t mean women are being paid the same salaries as men in the same positions. The line between "career woman” and “stay-at-home mom” might have become blurred as the possibilities increased, but it hasn’t been eliminated.
The feminine mystique talks in detail about how women’s sexual lives have often corresponded with their role in society. I think it's important to remember while reading those sections that when they talk about a woman enjoying sex it's not about the act of sex as much as it is about the fact that she thinks she has the right to enjoy it. Throughout history sex has often been treated as an obligation for women, something they are expected to provide for their husbands; their enjoyment was not a factor. What the feminine mystique points out is that women's enjoyment tends to correspond with how they view themselves and how they view sex. Is it an obligation they have to suffer through or is it something that they are doing with the partner out of a mutual desire.
In the book Friedman talks about some research done on how long housework takes if your stay-at-home mom versus a working mom. The conclusion was that most working mothers got it done in half the time. The author’s theory is that women stretch the work to fill their days to justify being at home. I don't know if that's true or not but it's interesting. Especially since this was written when huge advances were being made in household appliances. Dish washers, washers, dryers, kitchen mixers, these devices supposedly cut work time in half but the author and researchers found that the women just made more complicated recipes and did the laundry twice as often, washing sheets twice a week instead of once. One bachelor even made the claim that he could run most households in half the time that women did. When outraged women told him to prove it he did, taking over the four child household of one woman for a period of time. At the end of the time she even admitted he was the better cook.
BOTTOM LINE: This book gave me so much to think about and there’s a lot to be learned from the experiences of other women. I don't have kids and I've never been a stay-at-home mom so take my opinion with a huge grain of salt, but there’s a lot to be said for maintaining your own interests and friendships outside of your husband and children. I think it boils down to the pressure we put in ourselves to do the "right" thing in society’s eyes. Whether that is being staying at home or having a career, we create these standards that we have to hold our life to and then we can't help but feel overwhelmed when we fail. Finding the right balance in your own life is crucial and it’s different for every person.
It is a testament to its many 'truths' that it still commands respect 40 years on. The many descriptions of how the 1950s/1960s left women feeling isolated and powerless, plus the many changes that provided a path out of domesticity, are the things that I still value most about this text.
However, time has shown up some of the books faults. For me, the most glaring is the poor discussion of spending power and adverstising. Friedan reports that 75% of money earned is spent by women, and tries to turn this on its head to claim that they are still 'victims' because advertisers pay so much attention to manipulating them. This is a bit like saying that if men had 3 votes to women's 1, that men would be 'victims' because politicians were more interested in winning their votes. Women have spending power in our society and this gives them not only a lot of economic power but collective control over much of the media (who must not offend women if they wish to retain adverstising revenues).
A brilliant book, but not faultless. For a similarly sympathetic book from a man's perspective try to get your hands on a copy of "Why Men Are The Way They Are" by Warren Farrell.
However, the meat of the book remains the text itself and "The Feminine Mystique" stands up well as a readable work, even half a century on. Friedan's perceptiveness in describing 'the problem without a name' is bolstered by material from her own research, interviews and countless other contemporary sources. Where contemporary society encouraged men to pursue higher education, careers and grow in fulfilling ways, the mystique, bolstered by some cherrypicked elements from Freudian psychology and functionalist philosophies, urged women to subordinate all of those elements to fulfillment as a wife and mother. The problem was that so many women were driven to despair by the frustrations that they encountered in what was marketed to them as the ultimate in personal fulfillment and rewarding feminine duty.
The book lays out a damning case for how the mystique ran counter to the previous trends in American middle class culture where women's freedom and initiative had been celebrated. More damningly, Friedan shows how the mystique was endlessly useful to marketers in the burgeoning era of consumerism as well as their peers in the worlds of magazines, education and so on. Margaret Mead comes off rather badly for pushing the mystique's key message to urge women to embrace domestic service to husband and children early and totally while she, herself, did no such thing.
The book is flawed in my mind by an excessive reliance upon psychoanalysis. Many chapters focus in detail on this subject beginning with a long background on Freud's own problematic relationships with and understanding of women to page after page where Friedan uses psychoanalysis to diagnose problems in American housewives and their families all deriving from the toxic powers of the mystique. It is also relentlessly middle class: the world of the working class is almost non-existent except when evoked as servants!
I also couldn't accept her dismissals of homosexuality, particularly in men, and autism in children as consequences of pathological mother-love run amuck or improperly applied but, as I read those sections, I knew that she was approaching these topics using the thinking of the time. It's impossible to expect a book from 1963 to speak with the voice of 2013 all the time. The strength of "The Feminine Mystique" is that it evokes the past so vividly you'll think you're reading a modern history until you're jolted back into reality by those occasional tone-deaf moments.
If you want to understand the U.S. middle class culture of the 1950s and 1960s as how it played out in the media, medical, educational and marketing industries as well as in the personal stories of countless women, you should pick up Friedan's book and get to reading!
The author relates a lot of her information as a sort of piggyback on to work already researched and written by both Freud and Kinsey. She states that several times when doing her interviews her interviewees steer the conversation to some sort of sexual frustration and/or empowerment. As the author states "Sex is the only Frontier open to women who have always lived within the confines of the Feminine Mystique."
Although this book was written for women in the 40s 50s and 60s, it is still eye-opening to read today. Even though most of it reads as a dull textbook there is still some very good information within it. I also agree that this is a part of our history such as the Malleus Maleficarum and Mein Kampf and should continue to be read and studied as a historical text.
I am a feminist. I don’t think that’s a groundbreaking title to claim, although if you listen to some of my more famous peers (Katy Perry, I’m looking at you), it’s a dirty word. But whether you claim the title loudly and proudly, or claim everything the title represents but annoyingly shun the term itself, it’s good to understand its roots.
Enter The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women. Dense but accessible, the book focuses on the malaise that struck (straight, affluent, white – we’ll get to that in a minute) women in the 50s and 60s. Ms. Friedan put a name to “the problem that has no name,” exploring why women who seemingly have it all – or at least everything society thinks they should want to have – are unfulfilled, depressed, and even suicidal. She backs up her discussion with facts, referencing studies ranging from Kinsey’s research to polls from Mademoiselle magazine. She pretty neatly takes down the ridiculousness of Freudian theory as applied to women in the United States, and points to evidence that supports the idea that women who access higher education (whether before marriage or during) and pursue careers find themselves happier (and with better sex lives, natch) than their counterparts.
Much of the book is filled with important information and suggestions for how to achieve equality. While it took me awhile to get into it, I found that by breaking it down into chapters I was able to really process what I was reading. It was frustrating to read lines that could have been written today, describing how people view the ‘role of women’ in the home, that the most important thing that women can do is bear and raise children. As a childfree woman myself, I’m also well aware of the weird dichotomy that exists in the United States today: this worship of the idea of motherhood, but the disdain for mothers (e.g. no mandated paid maternity leave, shock at seeing a nipple in public to feed an infant, the judgment women cast upon each other over life choices).
BUT. And this is a big but, and one that I only discovered by reading the book – Ms. Friedan was apparently homophobic. It’s distressing to learn that she views that “Male homosexuals … are Peter Pans, forever childlike” who have a “fear of adult responsibility.” Say what now? While one can raise all the arguments they want about a book being ‘of its time’ (published in 1966), the fact remains that even in her later years of activism Ms. Friedan was at times guilty of expressing disdain for gay men and lesbians.
The other GIANT issue with this book is that, while focusing on what I would argue was (and to a degree still is) a real issue for women, she presented her arguments as though they applied to all women. I don’t think every book needs to examine all sides of every issue, but she certainly spent no time on the intersectionality of gender with race and class, and she also spent no time (at least that I saw, and I read it pretty closely) focused on why this is the group that needs the attention.
Still, I’d say this is a book to read for everyone who wants to understand better the history of feminism and be reminded not so much of ‘how far we’ve come’ but really of how far we haven’t come.
I love her analysis of the psychological and sociological pressures on women to conform to this housewife myth, and the chapter on the importance of bored housewives as consumers was startlingly prescient.
I realise that I have taken my freedom to be educated and to take up a career of my own choice for granted: the generation of women Friedan describes simply didn't have those options. I think about some of the older women in my family and recognise in them the frustration and empty consumerism that is described so vividly here.
It's amazing to think that no magazine of the time would publish Friedan's articles on this topic. By today's standards, Friedan's argument seems mild, but this book reignited feminism in the US in the 1950s. I find that amazing, too. Amazing and inspiring.
But of course, reality is better than illusion.
I imagine a lot of women read these pages in the 60's and seen them self there printed on the page and suddenly knew... they were not alone, there was nothing wrong with them. This edition still offers courage and acceptance to be who you are and not what others want you to be... Every teen girl should read this as they embark on life and who they are beginning to become.
I received this book via goodreads and was very pleased and honored to have had the opportunity to read and own and SHARE