Writing by Sylvie Dulson. Illustration by Dafne de Fine Licht.
Betty Friedan’s powerful book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 is often considered the inspiration behind second-wave feminism. This ‘wave’ saw the important conversations surrounding gender inequality broaden to include sexuality, family, workplace and reproductive rights and de facto inequalities. However, in an age of ‘fourth-wave feminism’ and intersectionality, can Friedan’s book withstand the test of time and be considered a call to liberation for all women, everywhere?
When it was published in the early 1960’s, The Feminine Mystique resonated with hundreds and thousands of women across suburban America. The global hangover from World War Two, while still palpable in Europe, instead precipitated a boom in the American economy and a subsequent increase in living standards that hadn’t been seen anywhere else in the world. American women were supposedly one of the great benefactors of this economic prosperity, now treated to the luxury of being a stay-at-home wife, fulfilling their one true desire of homemaking and child-rearing. Never had women been allowed not only to stay at home, but to have ‘spare’ time; time that was awarded to them through the technological advancements of the 1950’s, which included dishwashers, washing-machines, televisions and radios. No longer expected to toil in fields, man factories or spend fifteen hours a day running the home like their mothers and colonial ancestors did, women could dedicate their time to consuming new products, gossiping and, most importantly, to their children.
This supposed dreamlike female existence is what Betty Friedan came to call “the problem that has no name.” This mystique was centred around the feminine roles of mother and caregiver, and many women found that once this role was fulfilled it left them feeling devoid of any purpose at all. The myth of the ‘Feminine Mystique’ was one that was forced upon women, telling them that their dissatisfaction and unfulfillment was abnormal. The growing consumerist society, overrun by institutions and businesses headed by men reinforced and renewed this ‘mystique’ through a myriad of products and advertisements designed to tell women that their goal was to have children and love their husbands, thereby distracting them from the real inequalities they faced. Repeatedly, women were told by magazines, psychologists, and college principals that “All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children” (1) to reach this ‘utopian’ female existence.
In response, Friedan encouraged a drastic revaluation of what it meant to be feminine, calling for women to free themselves through education and ‘meaningful work’. Notably, her book does not advocate for change in the revolutionary sense of overthrowing the system, but instead is liberal in her assumption that freedom is founded through individual choice. The significant point that Friedan does not address is that independent choice was not, and still isn’t, equally available to all women; an issue that now dominates contemporary discourse surrounding intersectional and inclusive feminism However, it was this liberal approach that made her book such a watershed in feminist history. It helped translate and promote feminist theory and philosophy in a way that was accessible to the women who needed to read it the most. While Friedan was not the first to write of women and economic freedom (see Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), she was the first to speak directly to the housewives and mothers whom it concerned.
The specifically personal and emotional experiences that Friedan draws upon makes her anger tangible on the page. This allows it to resonate with the thousands of women who felt as furiously forgotten as the next. Its most powerful conclusion argues that it was the social constructs and expectations forced upon women that were harming them, rather than their own individual struggles. While this point may seem obvious to us today, it was a revelation for the two generations of women who had felt at a loss despite living a life that was supposedly perfect. Even today, The Feminine Mystique speaks to women on an intimate level, helping young girls to understand that “feminism could be practical, could be noble, and had radically changed the world…for the better.” (2) Most importantly it forced discontented women and their cry for cultural and economic liberation into the public consciousness alongside the Civil Rights Movement.
The glaring elephant in the room of this otherwise essential piece of literature is its complete lack of acknowledgement of women outside the narrow band of the white, middle classes. Friedan wrote as though women of other races and classes simply did not exist, despite in her earlier, more radical years having argued that these women were the most victimised by sexist oppression. More than one-third of all women were in the workforce at the time Friedan was writing, having to support their families, and had no time for the leisure or the boredom Friedan so fervently spoke against. Very rarely are working-class women or women of colour mentioned, except as housekeepers or nannies, as if the surrendering of their own freedom to secure that of their white, middle-class sisters was a necessary evil. Friedan also talks of homosexuality as a regrettable product of the ‘mystique’, suggesting that the childlike immaturity of mothers confined to the home contaminated their children. Despite renouncing comments like these later in her political career, Friedan’s argument is still stained by her ignorance.
Modern campaigns for gender equality focus on the freedom of choice in abortion, sex, employment, money, and every other area of life. Friedan too wanted women to have agency over their own decisions, but gave no practical resolutions to tackle the very systems that enforced these structural inequalities. How could this ‘mystique’ be so powerful, yet be overcome merely by women getting an education and going to work? Neglecting to offer solutions for overcoming well-established, often ancient disparities protected by laws, traditions and institutions like universities again limits how relevant Friedan’s argument was for women in her time, and for women today.
Despite the many limitations, The Feminine Mystique carries a considerable legacy. It fostered interest in urgent issues such as workplace equality, birth control, and women’s education, and made feminism, albeit a white-washed version, a mainstream concern. It contributed to the discourse surrounding the liberation of women within their own homes, bringing the private concerns of thousands into the political sphere, thereby allowing for women to express their anger and prioritise their mental health. It was not revolutionary in the sense that all women were freed from thousands of years of shared discrimination, but it did give women the words to freely vocalise their experiences, and as such is a critical starting point for a campaign for gender equality built upon the freedom of choice.
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell Publishing, 1977) p.11-12
A. Bhasker Shukla,The American Feminists a Critical Study (Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2007)
Ashley Fetters, 4 Big Problems With The Feminine Mystique, The Atlantic, February 12th 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems-with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/, Accessed 19th August 2021
Jacob Muñoz, ‘The Powerful, Complicated Legacy of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’, Smithsonian Magazine, February 4th 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/powerful-complicated-legacy-betty-friedans-feminine-mystique-180976931/, accessed 19th August 2021