The Feminine Mystique: Summary & Author

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This lesson contains a brief biography of Betty Friedan, author of ''The Feminine Mystique''. It also includes a summary of ''The Feminine Mystique'' and an overview of major topics and arguments.

Betty Friedan, Author

Betty Friedan began her career as a writer after graduate school. She was a journalist, primarily for liberal or 'leftist' publications and labor union media until she became pregnant with her second child and was fired from her job at a labor union publication. After her firing, she decided to become a freelance writer. Her focus had always been on women's rights though she often downplayed her interest and support of the issue in favor of playing up her status as a wife and mother. Doing so helped her get more interviews and information from people who would otherwise refuse to speak to someone they thought would be too 'leftist' and denigrate them for not supporting women's rights or women's issues. Friedan was also founder of NOW, or National Organization for Women, a group which functions to promote, obtain, and maintain women's rights in the United States.

Betty Friedan and fellow co-founders of NOW
Betty Friedan and fellow co-founders of NOW

In 1957, Friedan was asked to survey her graduating class from Smith College as they neared the fifteenth anniversary of their graduation. She found that many were disappointed and disillusioned with their lives as housewives or as women in the workforce. This inspired her to write articles about 'the problem that has no name', this was her phrase for the sexism so prevalent in American culture and the dissatisfaction most women experienced.

The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique was first published in 1963. Friedan drew upon her years of experience as a journalist as well as her interviews with women since the findings of her 1957 survey to create the book. Friedan also drew heavily upon her own experiences as a wife, mother, and educated, middle-class woman for The Feminine Mystique.

Friedan defined 'the feminine mystique' as the expectations women are indoctrinated with from early childhood onward in their lives, everything from how women should look to appropriate jobs and even how they should feel. In her book, she explored her findings via research that a large percentage of women changed their appearance, even to the point of being in discomfort or pain for long periods of time, in order to fulfill these expectations, or forwent furthering their education or developing professionally because they were expected to fit one mold (happy housewife and mother, or happy housewife and mother in potentia).

Friedan Criticizes Systematic Sexism

Over the course of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan discusses the history of feminism in America, like the impact of World War I and II on the American woman and her role in society, as well as how the Cold War influenced perceptions of women and reinforced stereotypical roles both in and out of the home. This period was known as first-wave feminism.

She also took to task the popular theories of Sigmund Freud, who postulated that women are childlike and are 'made' to stay in the home. His theories were the most prevalent psychological theories in medicine and pop culture during the era when Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and her criticism was considered very brash and incendiary.

Friedan's major criticisms were focused upon societal constructs forcing women into roles they did not want but giving them little or no other options. Women were largely expected to be homemakers or, in the event of having a job outside the home, take part in limited fields such as nursing, teaching, or office work. It should be noted that, while there were outliers and women were also doctors, farmers, performers, the overwhelming 'norm' and expectation was for women to fit the Happy Homemaker mold. Friedan challenged the expectations and presented strong proof that women were overwhelmingly unhappy with the roles forced upon them with no other options.

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