“The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan provoked a tidal wave of disagreement and protest among American women. Their position seemed to be stable, and being a suburban housewife became a holy grail for every girl in the country. However, women’s inner dissatisfaction with such lifestyle was steadily escalating, and Friedan was the first to raise awareness of an unspoken problem in an effort to make women change views on their life goals.
The Backgrounds of the Book
To begin with, Betty Friedan was an educated middle-class woman, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants. She was fired from the United Electric Workers as soon as she got pregnant, so she was forced to adapt to the housewife lifestyle and forget about writing for a while.1 Although Friedan managed to restart her career later, she was writing mostly on feminine and child-rearing topics. It did not last long. Her anger and discontent with the nationwide promotion of early marriages and family as the only goal for women were soon reflected in “The Feminine Mystique.”
One of Friedan’s main points in the book was the reveal of “the problem that has no name.” She stresses that American women of those days could not even discuss this problem, although many of them suffered from its presence. The society made them respected in case they were exemplary mothers and wives. Experts advised them to make motherhood a life mission, to make it their cherished fulfillment. Thus, the problem of not questioning was torturing women, who did not even realize their true state of mind.
It is to be noted that in the 1960s America had a tough period in its history. At first sight, the public mood seemed to be optimistic, and after years of war, life was finally balanced and prosperous. Nevertheless, it was then that the first strikes for civil rights of black Americans occurred. Moreover, the year of publication of “The Feminine Mystique” was marked by the death of John Kennedy. Overall optimism was vanishing. Deep social issues were about to explode. Hence, the grounds for publishing a sparking feminist statement were ready.
Encouragement of Second-Era Feminism
The issue highlighted by Friedan is closely connected to the aims of feminist movement. Famous feminist activist bell hooks suggested that the book “paved the way for contemporary feminist movement,” as it was like a trigger for women to start thinking about the career.2 Having a deeper look at the problem might improve the understanding of connection between the movement and the ideas of Friedman.
Bowden and Mummery state that the problem, revealed in the book, was “based in the discrepancy between women’s own sense of their needs and potential in life, and the feminine roles of wife and mother to which their society consigned them”.3 Women did not pay attention to their limited social opportunities. They could not connect it with a feeling of emptiness. Friedan’s ideas gave women an understanding that the present approach to life is a trap. It pushed them to speak out and gave many of them a sense of being not alone.
The second-era feminism began with an open discussion of women’s position. Orleck suggests that “The Feminine Mystique” was motivating women to see the other possible side of life, “with career and work opportunities as prescription for dissatisfaction and isolation”.4 Thus, Friedan started the continuous conversation, which disturbed many activists, dreaming about gender equality and rights to work like men. Feminists were concerned about the strikingly small number of women in the workforce. The explanation was in the mentality of people, underestimation of women’s potential and feminine priorities, settled in the minds of millions.
In addition, Friedan provoked many women to evaluate the level of sexism in the society. The topic of gender equality used to be discussed before, but the real position of women still seemed humiliating and unfair to those who wanted to devote his life to personal interests. Women had nervous breakdowns in case something went wrong, and their husbands could not understand them. The growing isolation only increased the sense of unhappiness among women, and men continued to regard them only as creatures made to be wives and mothers. This model, where woman was an object, became quite common for American society. Fortunately, Friedan started questioning in public whether this model deserved to exist.
On the other hand, one specific aspect of “the problem that has no name” should be considered. The discourse concerned mainly white middle or upper-class housewives, who were the first to face the problem due to their constant isolation at home and mundane conformity. Hooks critique was that “only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique”.5 She points out the difference in class. Nevertheless, she admitted that Friedan’s work was shaping the feminist movement of the time, as white women made a significant contribution in global fight for the rights.
To sum up, Friedan’s work drew public attention to the problem of underestimation of women as individuals. They were never regarded as autonomous adults, which resulted in nervous breakdowns and inner conflicts among American women. Finally, “The Feminine Mystique” revealed this problem to the society and encouraged the beginning of new period in feminist movement, which changed attitudes of many women to their lives.
Bowden, Peta, and Jane Mummery. Understanding Feminism. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1963.
Hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Orleck, Annelise. Rethinking American Women’s Activism. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Annelise Orleck, Rethinking American Women’s Activism (New York: Routledge, 2014), 77.
- bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (New York: Routledge, 2014), 2.
- Peta Bowden and Jane Mummery, Understanding Feminism (New York: Routledge, 2014), 13.
- Annelise Orleck, Rethinking American Women’s Activism (New York: Routledge, 2014), 78
- bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (New York: Routledge, 2014), 3.