Whether it’s ‘Mad Men‘ or ‘Desperate Housewives’, you’d have noticed a recurring pattern in television and film—unhappy suburban housewives. And there’s a history to it, too. The 1950s and ’60s, like the eras before it, were not kind to women. Those who ventured out into the professional sphere were having a tough time anyway, what with the rampant misogyny in the workplace, but those relegated to the domestic sphere, as housewives, were having an equally shitty time. With ridiculous gender roles and cultural stereotypes thrust upon them, limiting their sexual, professional, social and physical freedoms—it was only a matter of time until a breaking point was reached, and that breaking point came in the form of Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’.
With a specialization in psychology, Betty Friedan brought in a new perspective to the women’s rights movement—by choosing to focus how patriarchy affected women’s mental health, which many of the existing feminist movements of the time hadn’t addressed. Perhaps it was this very fact which resonated with middle class women (especially housewives) so greatly, who, through this book, found that they were not alone in their predicament.
Friedan’s engagement with politics and social justice issues began very early in life. As a teenager, she was active in Marxist and Anti-semitic politics (she was Jewish, and had lived through the Holocaust era); and, later, in college, she wrote extensively—strongly expressing opinions against war propaganda, and for women’s rights. Writing prolifically, and unapologetically advocating feminist issues, she became one of the first radical feminists, or ‘radfems’ as we call it today. However, her crowning achievement was her founding of The National Organization for Women, or NOW, an organization which aimed at bringing women “into the mainstream of American society now [in] fully equal partnership with men“, or, in other words, an official girl gang to smash the patriarchy. During her tenure at NOW, it scored some major victories in its battle against gender discrimination in the workplace, including convincing President Johnson to ban gender-based discrimination in federal jobs and to ban sex-segregated job ads.
‘The Feminine Mystique‘ (published in 1963), however, approached women’s rights from a more internal perspective—through psychology, and research.
In 1957, Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion (and we thought college reunions were only about booze and dancing!); and the results, in which she found that many of them were unhappy with their lives as housewives, prompted her to begin research for ‘The Feminine Mystique’. Soon, she took the research further and interviewed a lot more women in a similar fashion, and found that the results were startling indeed. Thus, ‘The Feminine Mystique‘ was born.
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question– ‘Is this all?'”
In the very introduction, Friedan talks about the ‘problem with no name’—the widespread depression among women in the 1950s and ’60s, and sets the tone for the rest of the text. She talks about how insidiously patriarchy conditions women to think that their ultimate sense of fulfilment lies in getting married, having children, and living that perfect white-picket-fence existence; but, once the woman finally is in that situation and realizes how inherently messed up this ideal is, and how her identity is ultimately getting reduced to her utilitarian maintenance of the home, her mental health goes for a toss. The conditioning goes so deep that she fails to realize her own depression, and fails to see that it’s ultimately a by-product of the ridiculous gender roles forced upon her (something which Woolf has also talked about). Friedan urges women to think beyond this, to pursue careers and actions that are independent of the men of their lives, and tells women that they can be fulfilled and happy without men. Reading this in 2016, we’re probably thinking ‘but that’s so obvious!’. But it wasn’t, not at all, in the ’50s and ’60s, with middle class women who were culturally conditioned to give up their personal happiness and liberties in favour of their husbands. Friedan cites examples of how even the most intelligent and promising women dropped out of college early to marry, afraid that if they waited too long or became too educated, they would not be able to attract a husband. I’m sure, at this, you’re thinking what I’m thinking (“what the…?”), but this was, sadly, true.
Friedan draws upon her extensive research and shows how the editorial decisions concerning women’s magazines were being made mostly by men, who produced cultural material which depicted women as either happy housewives or unhappy career-persons, thus creating the “feminine mystique” — the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. In one of the most powerful quotes from the book, she says:
“Over and over again, stories in women’s magazines insist that women can know fulfillment only at the moment of giving birth to a child. They deny the years when she can no longer look forward to giving birth, even if she repeats the act over and over again. In the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.”
This brilliantly sums up how deeply the popular culture of the time (and even today) affected the way women saw themselves, and their role in society, and how much damage this ‘feminine mystique’ actually causes.
Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, and finds that they are actually not fulfilled by their housework, just extremely busy with it. Her inference is that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill all the time they have, because ‘the feminine mystique’ has taught women that this is their role, and when they are not particularly involved in completing these tasks, their identities will become meaningless and obsolete.
If that’s not dark and messed up, I don’t know what is.
Friedan also discusses how, due to the depression within these women, the children they raise also imbibe these traits, which ultimately affects their emotional growth. “When the mother lacks a self“, Friedan notes, “she often tries to live through her children, causing the children to lose their own sense of themselves as separate human beings.”
To sum up her arguments, Friedan discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, expected to find their identity through their sexual role alone. But, she challenges this, and says that women need meaningful work just as men do, to achieve self-actualization—which is the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.
There is no doubt that this text was revolutionary for when it came out—reaching out to and resonating with a large number of women (Friedan got looooads of fanmail from her readers), and helping them break free from their patriarchal conditioning. But Betty’s feminist butter was kinda bitter—because it was not inclusive. She focused only on cisgender, heterosexual, middle or upper class white women who already enjoyed a considerable amount of privilege (even though their struggles with patriarchy were very real). The thing is, she was also living in a time when the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam, and black women were suffering from a whole different kind of oppression. Further, the ’60s was also the time when queer politics and countercultures were becoming visible and prominent and were demanding for the decriminalizing of homosexuality. In this context, to not take any of these movements into account was more than a little bit not cool, especially when she was running a national feminist organization. It’s not just us, but many other feminist critics have had a similar problem with her work.
While talking about this text recently, we came up with a phrase which summed it up pretty well: ‘Great text, but bad feminism’.
And that’s exactly what you need to know about ‘The Feminine Mystique’. It is the definitive text of Second Wave Feminism, sheds light on some really terrifying patriarchal bullshit that was going down at the time, and has legitimately led to the emancipation of women from oppressive domestic duties; but what it fails to do is include all kinds of women, and acknowledge that patriarchy and the ‘feminine mystique’ manifests itself in different ways for different women. So, let’s appreciate what needs to be appreciated about this text, but also keep in mind what it fails to achieve.
To read more from our ‘Decoding A Feminist Text’ series, click here.