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.
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.Nineteenth-century feminists fought a ferocious battle:
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.
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.