The Feminine Mystique

Movements for Change Against ‘A Problem that has No Name’

Written by Rehana Akudi

20th January 2020

In 1963, feminist writer and psychologist, Betty Friedan penned a controversial book that revolutionised how women viewed their role and identities. This book was titled The Feminine Mystique, which became a landmark and catalyst for the feminist movement. As many despondent housewives turned the pages of their copies of the bestseller, women across America identified with Friedan’s work on how deeply dissatisfied they were with accepting their traditional roles.

Betty Friedan, the late author of The Feminine Mystique, is shown in her New York apartment May 25, 1970.

Desperate Housewives’

The American suburban housewife, considered the dream and goal for many, achieved an almost cult-like status during the 1950s. The ideal woman was portrayed by magazines, billboards and television advertisements. Even school home economics books taught young school girls:

Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, prepare the children, minimise all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him, make the evening his.

Suburban life grew rapidly post WWII, where it had offered the lure of home ownership to many middle and upper class Americans. By 1960, 19 million more people had lived in suburbs than in 1950. The pattern of suburban life was similar, despite race and class. The husband was the breadwinner and went out to work, whilst the woman stayed at home and looked after the house and children. Better-off women would have cleaners and most suburban housewives had labour-saving devices like a washing machine. Working women were excluded from friendship groups, or if they did not conform to demands like cutting the grass to a specific length, not having fencing or correct nap times for babies. Popular magazines would portray images of usually a doting white woman preparing a candle-lit dinner for her husband with the slogan: A Tempting table for his Highness. The media glorified the role of a traditional woman as the life to aspire to.

Frustrated with the status of a homemaker, Friedman sought out to discover the opinions of several of her old university educated classmates through a questionnaire on education for women. From it, she realised that they all shared the same feelings of discontent of their narrow roles. In her book, she laments over societal pressures,

What kind of woman is she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfilment waxing the kitchen floor? She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it.

Friedan attacked the notion that women could only find fulfilment in the home as a housewife and mother. She urged women to discover and seek who they really were by not relying on their husband or devoting themselves to just their children.

NOW

The banality and limits of a domestic life led to a wave that transformed the political landscape. Women were inspired by Friedan’s book to take action against this “problem that had no name” which was shared by a generation of young women.

On 30th June 1966, Friedan co-founded and helped create the National Organisation for Women (NOW). This became to be the largest organisation supporting women’s rights, goals and pursued equality for women in the workplace. “Equal pay for equal work” was one of their vocal slogans as by 1970, roughly half of the country’s women worked outside the home, but their income was only about 60% of what men earned in similar jobs. NOW suggested Bill of Rights for Women, which sought to have equal access to education and employment, maternity leave and reproductive rights. The movement put pressure on the government by litigation, holding meetings, demonstrations and collecting petitions.

Championing for the Equal Rights Amendment, the movement had resulted into a cross-examination of politics that benefited white men in particular and discriminated against women. In 1968, NOW won a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling whereby women could be jailed for twice as long as men for a similar crime. By 1974, there were over 40,000 members in NOW. Betty Friedan’s name has become synonymous with equal rights and feminism.

CONSIDER:

Was Betty Friedan to women what Martin Luther King was to black people?

How influential was her provocative work?

Is this book still significant or relevant today for female empowerment?

There still isn’t an Equal Rights Act today. Does this mean that the women’s equality movements were a failure?


Wider Reading

Websites:

Read Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique (pdf)

Podcast by BBC on The Feminine Mystique

NOW website

Further information on NOW on the Obama White House website

YouTube Clips:

Housewife to Women’s Activist
Betty Friedan and the National Organisation for Women

15 thoughts on “The Feminine Mystique

  1. Betty Friedan’s work was extremely influential as it gave women the power and he voice to stand up against the inequality women faced. In particular, it was her involvement in the National Organisation for Women which made a significant improvement to the lives of women. This organisation under Friedan’s leadership aimed to achieve equal rights for women in the workplace, and other aspects of life where women were deemed as inferior or not applicable to possess the same rights as men. The publishing of her book, The Feminine Mystique, was a gateway for the women’s rights movement as well as the establishment of NOW as her book provided women with the power to express their frustrations with the limitations of their gender role in society. Her work inspired women to go against the stereotypical views that society inflicted in people’s minds and not conform to how society believes women should act.

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  2. Friedan was seen as a heroic figure, who influenced women to speak out about gender discrimination towards women. Friedan’s book inspired many to which she touched upon ‘taboo’ subjects which were silenced in order to keep the control over these women in American society. She could be considered as the MLK towards the rights for women due to the fact she helped the set up of the organisation N.O.W. this not only encouraged women to march (which she led), protest and fight for the law to change, but there were some major successes for women within this organisation. NOW won rulings of the law in which discriminated females against males due to the stigma around male-superiority. This highlights the idea that Friedan embodied middle class housewives and gave a voice to each and every one in an empowering way.

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  3. Is this book still significant or relevant today for female empowerment?
    To a large extent, yes, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ discusses the issues women were facing by societal expectations of suburban living and how unhappy women were with this ideal. Although women now in modern society can do many of the same jobs men do, there are still certain issues such as gender pay inequality that has not been solved. It can be argued that it is still due to old – fashioned views that women are not as capable as men. Another example is, there are still arguments that abortion should be illegal – this supports the idea of gender inequality as it is taken away a women’s right to her own body. Thus, meaning this book is still extremely significant as women can be still treated differently.

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  4. Betty Friedan could be regarded to women what MLK is regarded to black people as she used her platform to offer a voice to silenced women, in a similar way MLK used his platform to give a voice to silenced black people, retrospectively.

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  5. Even though the women’s equality movement didn’t result in an Equal Rights Act, I think it would be fair to say that the movement brought about significant change in other forms. For example, many of the movement’s other goals were achieved. There are abortion services and Planned Parenthood available to most (despite there being a decline as of late), abortion rights are consistently upheld to this day, and the gender pay gap is slowly being closed. From a societal point of view, I don’t think there is any pressure for women to stay at home, and women encourage each other to be strong and to support one another, which provokes those difficult discussions which has led to a more open culture. We openly talk about divorce, abortion, sex and other topics that would have been considered “taboo” around the time of Betty Friedan’s activism. So while there is no legislation in place to enforce equality, society is doing it on its own; we are becoming more inclusive naturally, which I personally believe is more significant than having laws force the change.

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  6. Betty Friedan was in fact the Martin Luther King on the women’s rights protest. Friedan believed it was her role to educate women of their rights and their true potential as a women. She defied the classic stereotype that society had labelled women with. Her aims, like Martin Luther King Jr was to improve the standard of living for substantial amount of people who had become victim of the white male.

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  7. Even though there was a backlash to her work as speaking about such topics as sex as a women was seen as Taboo her work resonated throughout the lives of women and she was the reason most women believed their lives changed. By rejecting societal norms she showed how necessary is was a change to women’s lives was needed.

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  8. The Feminine Mystique was used as a catalyst in the women’s movement and fight for equal rights. Friedan’s book brought together a lost nation of women and turned them into freedom fighters. For once women of all ages and backgrounds felt like they had a purpose in their lives and didn’t want to ignore it. Due to this, the organisation NOW was set up in 1966 by none other than Betty Friedan herself. The group fought battles in the court rooms and on the streets. Friedan could be considered as the MLK of the women’s movement as everything she did lead to bigger changes and she was the starting point of it all.

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  9. I do believe Friendan’s work and publishing of “The Feminine Mystique” was successful to a certain extent as her work prompted middle class women living suburbs ,who were unhappy with their lives, to come out and speak up about the problems they faced. This fuelled women to become more feminist and set up Organizations like NOW which held petitions, marches and demonstrations to try influence the government to passing women’s civil right acts. However, Betty’s work did face opposition from conservatives who were in fear of communism and a women called Phylis Schefler who strongly opposed the NOW organisation.

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  10. I do believe Friedan’s role in the fight for women’s liberation was important, as the issues she uncovered in her book The Feminine Mystique fuelled the founding of NOW, which consequently lead to the passing of laws for women such as legalising abortion in 1973. To middle class women living in suburbs these issues were prominent in their lives, however women who were from a minority background didn’t have the same issues as privileged white women. The plight of these women was being accepted in society altogether, not just struggling with being tied down to being a housewife but with life in general. Due to this I feel it would be unfair to say that Friedman was the MLK of women’s rights as she didn’t fight tirelessly for all women’s rights, only those she felt deserving of equality.

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  11. Betty Friedan is renowned for fuelling second wave feminism, and her pressure and the work of NOW is credited with advancement sin the status of women. My opinion is that their work was largely ineffective, with their main role being accelerating and publicising the issues of women. However, after WW2 and the change in social attitudes experienced, particularly around women in work, this social change was inevitable, if delayed. As women gained more economic power (as they were sure to do so as they entered work increasingly) political and social rights would come. Furthermore, as more men saw how effective they were in the workplace, attitudes would change which would breed increasing rights. As often, movements purporting to be fighting for the rights of ‘oppressed peoples’, in this case women, did little to empower them.

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  12. Despite the fact i do believe that Friedan was an influential character for the women liberation movement and due to her work and, book feminine mystique she acted as the catalyst for the women rights movement as she gave suburban women a confident to aim for things other that purely being a wife and mother, I do not think she could be called the Martin Luther King of the women liberation movement. This is due to that fact that her book, despite being very influential only addressed white, suburban middle class housewives and did not consider other women in different stations that also needed the liberation movement to gain their freedom. As black and minority women across America were also discriminated against and also needed more representation within the movement. Despite this however I do agree that Friedan was a very significant figure in the jump start of the women’s liberation movement.

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  13. I do believe that Friedan’s work was successful to a slight extent because she urged women to go against their typical housewife role/living on the suburbs and she showed to women their need to fight for their rights and work actively. Friedan was also significant as she was the co founder of NOW which was important to changing the lives of women because NOW worked within the political system to get equal rights and opportunities for women and better enforcement of acts such as equal rights act. However there still isn’t an equal rights act today so their work wasn’t fully successful however it did bring the issues women were facing to public attention.

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