Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Feminine Mystique

I recently finished reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique which I read for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Motivation for reading:
Grace of GRACEful Retirement inspired me to read this book when she left a comment on my blog post: Ten non-fiction books that help us understand the world stating this was the book that helped her better understand the world. It was also included on Caroline Benders list of 20 business books they expect you have read.

What is the Feminine Mystique?
Friedan begins with her discovery of women’s unhappiness in post-World War II middle-class suburbia which she calls “the problem that has no name.” She attributes this unhappiness to the loss of identity women experience from devoting their lives to housewifery and motherhood. “The Feminine Mystique” was the phony bill of goods society sold women leaving them financially, intellectually and emotionally dependent on their husbands.

My thoughts:
For me, this book was a difficult read. I found it to be long and repetitious. I understand Friedan needed to hammer in her points to get woman to take notice, but if I had attempted to read this book when I was younger I am sure I never would have finished it. Despite the books difficulty, it did leave me with several valuable insights I would like to share:

Women abandoned their careers, so they could buy the latest carpet sweeper and cleaning cleanser:
The important role woman served as housewives was to buy more things for the house. The real business of America is business. The perpetuation of the mystique makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes that women are the chief consumers of American business. Somehow, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless yearning, energy-to-get rid of state of being a housewife.
Magazine editors perpetuated “The Feminine Mystique” by restricting the topics and advertisements portrayed in their magazines:
Friedman had studied women’s magazines for decades and found the editorial decisions were made by men who enforced “occupation housewife.” Articles and advertisements only portrayed women as housewives. They didn’t want them to have any other ambitions than to be housewives.

A perceptive social psychologist showed Friedman statistics which seemed to prove American women under 35 are not interested in politics. “If you write a political piece they won’t read it. You have to translate it into issues they can understand – romance, pregnancy, nursing, home furnishings and clothes. Run an article on the economy, or the race question, civil rights, and you’d think that women never heard of them.”

Maybe they hadn’t heard of them. Ideas are not like instincts of the blood that spring into the mind intact. They are communicated by education, by the printed word. The new young house-wives who leave high school or college to marry, do not read magazines. Magazines today assume women are not interested in ideas.
Nineteenth-century feminists fought a ferocious battle:
Friedan recalled the battles faced by nineteenth-century feminists in the United States. As in her own time, nineteenth-century society attempted to restrict women to the roles of wife and mother and slandered women who challenged this gentle image. However, despite harsh resistance, early feminists held their ground, and women were ultimately given many opportunities men enjoyed, including education, the right to pursue their own careers, and, most important, the right to vote. With this last major goal fulfilled, Friedan says, the early women's movement died.

The Feminine Mystique was still prevalent in my community in the late 70’s:
Less than ten percent of the females in my graduating class went on to earn college degrees immediately after graduation. They either married, found a job or took secretarial courses to bide time until they got married and had children. My father didn’t support my college education decision thinking I wouldn’t use it once I got married. My Aunt advised me to find a man who would take care of me.

Then there was my mother’s unhappiness in her role as a housewife. We lived in the country and she did not have her driver’s license. She had to ask my father for every penny she needed (not to mention a ride to the store); justifying each purchase whether it was a card for a sick friend, a birthday present for one of her six children or a tube of lipstick for herself. She fondly reminisced about her life before she was married; her friends, her job and apartment in the city and her own money.

What can women do to break "The Feminine Mystique?"
Women need creative work of their own equal to her actual capacity. The only way for a woman, as for a man to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way. But a job any job, is not the answer-in fact, it can be part of the trap. Women who do not look for jobs equal to their capacity, who do not let themselves develop the lifetime interests and goals which require serious education and training, who take a job at twenty or forty to “help out at home: or just to kill extra time, are walking, almost as surely as the ones who stay inside the housewife trap, to a nonexistent future.
Is The Feminine Mystique a non-fiction book every woman should read?
The subject matter of this book is certainly relevant today. Many Americans both male and female are currently trapped by their circumstances; underemployment, housework, child rearing and caring for their aging parents. Advertisers and marketing schemes continue to influence us to make poor decisions; purchasing huge Mc Mansions we can’t afford with money we don’t have comes to mind. Despite these circumstances, the book will not be making the list. I foresee my list as a list of books that not only teach, but inspire women to read additional non-fiction and I don’t think The Feminine Mystique is up to that task.

For a case study of “The Feminine Mystique,” I recommend reading Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile. The book details the life of Phoebe Snetsinger an overeducated, bored, depressed and underutilized suburban housewife before she took up birding as an excuse to get out of the house.


  1. Thanks for showing how we have not "come a long way" in some respects, and for this honest summary of Freidan.

  2. A good summary, but I think it is hard to adequately describe what a radical idea the "feminine mystique" was when the book burst on the scene. That may partially explain why she repeated endlessly.

    When I left for college in 1965 my whole family was pleased that I had been accepted at a nationally known liberal arts college because I would meet a smart man there who would support me. I had no inclination to work - didn't like children (teacher) and hated the thought of sick people (nurse), so thought that if I had to work at bit - for a few years - I might be a secretary. I majored in French because I liked it, and I could be interesting at cocktail parties - seriously!

    Somewhere in 1967 the world shifted on its axis and suddenly I was expected to have a career! OMG!!

    We were not prepared. The education majors were fine - they had a plan, but the rest of us were left clueless. I liked the one accounting class I had taken, but was not ALLOWED to change my major to business. That department did not take women majors - seriously!

    We were considered inferior as workers in the careers that had previously be all male - engineering, architecture, business, medicine, pharmacy - you name it. We were not welcome. Sadly other women were among our harshest critics. I think it is difficult for the young women of today to realize that in only one generation that has changed so very much!

    So much has changed, and yet so much more remains to be done.

  3. Webb,
    Thanks for your comments and for sharing your story. It is interesting, yet so disturbing. It is hard to believe how few opportunities women really had. Growing up I had always thought my Mom was trapped in her life as a housewife because my Dad was a jerk; I never fathomed almost every middle-class woman of her generation was trapped.

    At my last job, I worked with a woman who was a teacher in the 60’s. When she became pregnant with her first child in 1969 she was fired; her school didn’t want children viewing a pregnant woman.

    I also worked with a gal whose mother wanted to be a nurse, but since she was married to a doctor she wasn’t allowed to go to college. She ended up working as a receptionist in his office instead. I believe this was in the fifties.

    Another area of the book I did not really touch on was the whole feminine aspect of the Feminine Mystique; women were supposed to be blond, thin and sexy. I think you said it best, “So much has changed, and yet so much more remains to be done.”

  4. Sometimes a book is so much a product of its time and place that reading it out of that context just doesn't compell. I know I felt that way about "Catcher in the Rye," which I read as a 30-something adult (and didn't see what the fuss was all about! I should have read it as a teen!) But for this 60 year old woman, "The Feminine Mystique" was an eye-opening read. Sad that even today, it is applicable if not as readable as it once was.

  5. Great review, great comments. I read this a few years ago but it was before blogging - I wish I remembered more of my reactions. Thank you for participating in the Women Unbound Challenge.