Book Review: The Feminine Mystique
betty friedan feminine mystique feminism
One of my biggest reading projects these past few months has been Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I’ve always been interested in women’s psychology and feminism, so I was eager to deepen my understanding by reading this canonical work.
Friedan addresses the state of women during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, into the 70s, when many women gave up on pursuing an education and a career, denying all their aspirations but those related to raising a family. Where in the 1930s, half of women were in the workforce, by 1960, the number had dropped to 30%. The percentage of women graduating college before WWII was also higher than it was in the decades following.
Somehow, American women had regressed in their fight for positions of leadership in society.
Besides the social and political regression, the denial of all but sexual fulfilment (referring here to marriage, childbearing, childrearing, and family-building) led to a high incidence of personal psychological problems, ranging from mild depression to schizophrenia to suicide. All because women were offered no options for fulifllment besides being housewives.
Friedan’s book is named for the phenomenon she seeks to describe: the feminine mystique that hijacked the minds of America’s women and convinced them that, to be feminine, to be fully women, they had to be passive housewives and babymakers.
The mystique was pervasive to the point that many didn’t even realize it existed, and it influenced psychologists treating women (who told them to do more of the very things that were making them insane), social scientists, anthropologists, and policy makers. All of American society at the time advocated the mystique. Friedan gave it a name and described it so that women could start to deny it.
I found this book extremely relevant to my life and relationships. It helped me understand the women in my life and my attitudes towards them. Many of the women I’ve been close to have struggled mightily with the problem of claiming their own sense of purpose and validating their dreams. Mystique finally explained what it is about American culture that makes it so difficult for a woman to understand what she wants and, once she knows, to actually give that passion the importance it deserves.
I’ve met very few women who were free of this ‘problem with no name’, and they have stood out as exceptionally strong-willed. Some might even describe them an unfeminine which, according to Friedan, is exactly the problem. The idea of being ‘feminine’ has become associated with meekness, passionlessness, weakness, and self-effacement for the sake of others.
Mystique also sheds some light on the nature of modern advertising, consumerism, and media. Women, as the manager of household finances, with plenty of time to read and shop during the day, became the targets for advertising and media companies that preyed on and played up their lack of fulfillment. We see this today in the way magazines send the message that women are not pretty enough, sexy enough, smart enough, driven enough, passive enough, etc. Luckily, these same magazines are full of articles and ads providing everything a moden woman needs to be ‘enough’, for a small price.
Things I Didn’t Like
Friedan makes some jumps in her logic, making broad generalizations about anecdotes or shakey theories. Trying to cover everything with the blanket theory of the feminine mystique, Friedan stretched it too far, and she damages her own credibility in my eyes. She was redeemed by the fact that every woman out there knew (knows) exactly what she was talking about, but I wonder how her arguments were recieved among men.
That said, I recognize that she was writing during a very oppressive time for thinking women. Academicians would have tried to dig into every hole in her argument in an attempt to discredit it or minimize its importance. What comes off as defensiveness was more likely just prudence.
I didn’t realize how much this attitude towards women reflected a deep dysfunction in society as a whole. Now that I’m studying ecology, it seems obvious that a problem in one part of a system is indicative (or causes) problems in the rest of it, but the fact that Mystique and the school of thought from which it arises is set off as ‘feminism’ suggests that it is a problem for women alone. This can lead to the attitude that, while women may never be happy or feel the same freedom to pursue their dreams that men do, these problems can be contained to the sphere of ‘women’s issues.’ That was the way it was seen, and still is, to a large extent.
Hopefully, that attitude is fading. Mystique revealed how ‘the problem with no name’ was a problem for everyone, men and women. What effect does a self-effacing mother have on her son? What lessons are men internalizing when they are told that women cannot be taken seriously, cannot even take themselves seriously?
Hopefully, it is obvious that the happiness of 50% of humanity is something we all need to take seriously. Feminine Mystique is worth reading.