The Feminine Mystique Review

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique chronicles a disturbing trend among women of the fifties and sixties, flocking to the home at the expense of everything else.  Friedan argues that every aspect of male-dominated American society is set up to brainwash women into believing that their only worth is in being a wife and mother; causing depression, listlessness, and sexual issues.  Women become victims of what she calls “the problem that has no name.” Friedan lays out a case for a complex web of oppression running throughout early 1960s’ society, involving publishers, Freud, Kinsey, Margaret Mead, college curriculums, and women themselves. Unfortunately, Friedan’s book is not without its faults.  Overly dramatic at times and relying heavily on statistics that are questionable at best, The Feminine Mystique has become an easy target for many who oppose the feminist movement. Nevertheless, the book has true value by relaying the firsthand accounts of women’s experiences before the second wave of feminism, for it is in these women’s stories that we can see through the pomp and circumstance of Friedan’s writing to the true reasons behind the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies.

When World War II ended, women flocked back from their wartime jobs and ensconced themselves in the home.  Although there are many reasons for this phenomenon, probably the most likely reasons stem from women’s economic inability to marry through the depression years, and from their long absence from marriage aged men because of the war.  Whatever the causes, birth rates boomed, the United States Gross Domestic Product rose to unprecedented heights, and people everywhere were celebrating their newfound prosperity.  Despite the affluence of Americans, not all women were as happy as they were purported to be.  The Mystique touched every area of women’s lives.  Advertisements extolled domesticity, and Dr. Spock’s baby book asserted that women who worked were harming their children.  Even when women did work outside of the home, they were relegated to “pink collar jobs” such as hairdressing and waitressing.  Wages for these jobs were far below the salaries of traditionally male jobs.  Although traditional gender roles often pigeonholed women into unsatisfying lives, the idea that a wholesale conspiracy existed to keep women down is a hard sell.

Friedan does her best to convince us of this conspiracy, often times reaching too far.  Although Friedan’s overly dramatic language can be seen in nearly every chapter, it is perhaps best seen in the chapter attacking women’s magazines.  Citing articles from such publications as McCalls, Redbook, Life, and Ladies Home Journal, Friedan claims a widespread conspiracy of male editors to include stories pertaining to domestic subjects only.  She compares articles from 1949 to articles from 1939 in order to show how drastically the role of women has changed in “just ten years.”  Many of the girls in the early articles devote themselves to their careers and are rewarded for it.  Individuality and resourcefulness are emphasized.  The later articles all show firsthand, and sometimes humorous accounts of women’s mistaken exploits in the home.  A good example of this is in the story of the Sandwich Maker.  A woman who feels that her weekly allowance is not enough is puzzled about what to do for money:  “At last the solution comes – she will take orders for sandwiches from other men at her husband’s plant.  She earns $52.50 a week, except that she forgets to count costs, and she doesn’t remember what a gross is so she has to hide 8,640 sandwich bags behind the furnace.” (Friedan 94)  In addition to this, quotes from male editors, women editors, and freelance journalists tell how the publishing industry has changed in the last ten years.  These eyewitnesses claim male editors have decreed that women are only interested in things pertaining directly to their home.  Calls for articles about foreign policy or issues bigger than the home-sphere are patronizingly put down by these male editors, as they have numbers to show that issues like these do not sell. One editor claims: “Our readers are housewives, full time.  They’re not interested in the broad public issues of the day.  They are not interested in national or international affairs.  They are only interested in family and the home.” (Friedan 84)

The conspiracy of male editors seeking to dumb down women created by Friedan is almost certainly overstated.   If we look at later chapters in the book, Friedan herself lays out a rebuttal to her conspiracy theory.  In her chapter about women who attend college, Friedan notes the complete disinterest of women in anything that doesn’t relate to the home.  She claims that they know they will be nothing but housewives in the future, and that by studying and enjoying the preparation for a career, they are only setting themselves up to be discontented later.  It therefore becomes a reasonable conclusion that these women do not want to read articles about foreign policy and that magazines with these articles will not sell.  Far from being a conspiracy set up by magazine publishers to keep women in the home, we can see this trend as a symptom of the Mystique rather than a cause. 

Another flaw in Friedan’s reasoning is her inability to see events in historical context, despite her chapter on women in history.  In 1939, with the Great Depression still rearing its ugly head, it seems obvious that a woman would be prized for her resourcefulness.  In a post-war, affluent society, women’s image will necessarily be different.  The world itself had changed completely in these ten years, from a depressed economy where people struggled to feed themselves, to a wartime economy trying to support the troops, to an affluent consumer society.  Women of the Depression, struggling to help their family survive, do not have the same wants or needs as the prosperous American housewife of the 1950s.  Also, women’s role in society has changed just as quickly in ages prior:  women of 1899, living the first Cult of Domesticity, were not the Progressive Era women of 1909. 

In addition to these facts, we can also see that the 1939 stories do not exactly portray an image of unfettered femininity, as Friedan claims.  The women in these stories are still all seeking matrimony, and women who “do the right thing” are often rewarded by gaining the handsome or rich hero as their husband.  As Friedan says of one story, published in the Lady’s Home Journal in 1939, “How can the boss expect her to give up her date!  But she stays on the job… She finds the man, too – The boss!” (Friedan 87).  Friedan’s last claim that she “Went through issue after issue of the three major women’s magazines… without finding a single heroine who had a career, a commitment to any work, art, profession, or mission in the world, other than “Occupation: housewife”.” (Friedan 93) is also false.  Other scholars have been through these magazines as well, and do not find her claim to be at all valid.  Although it is undeniable that these magazines are skewed toward women making their lives as housewives, articles about successful career women appear frequently.   Friedan herself admits to having written articles about a successful artist.  Friedan had to focus the story on the artist’s role as a housewife, but the idea that women could take care of their children and also be something else belies the overarching claim Friedan makes of the Mystique.

Another area in which Friedan has not been careful is in her use of unreliable statistics.   For many of her statistics citing birth rates, Friedan consulted the United Nation’s Demographic Yearbook, which dealt with so many countries that it could not make a careful study of any one of them.  From this source, data pertaining to individual countries cannot be comprehensive, giving us a skewed view of the birthrate.  Studies published by the US government were available to her as well, citing newer and more comprehensive information.  Government data also cited statistics going back through the 1940’s, as opposed to the United Nation data that started in 1950.  With ten more years of information to compare and contrast, and better information available, why would Friedan not have used the US Government statistics? Perhaps because they did not match the point she was trying to make.  The choice of sources is not the only flaw in Friedan’s statistics.  At almost every turn, she irresponsibly manipulates data to fit her claims.

“The women who “adjust” as housewives, who grow up wanting to be “just a housewife” are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps…” (Friedan 423).  By comparing the comfortable yet bland lives of women in the fifties to victims of Nazi concentration camps, Friedan enters territory that is outright offensive.  An actual concentration camp was horrific and demeaning.  People were imprisoned in unsanitary, bug-ridden conditions where they were forced to work at backbreaking tasks for little to no food.  Others were stripped naked, gassed, burned.  Skeletal bodies stacked like cordwood often decorated the landscape.  There was no choice and no optimism in these camps.  As they struggled to survive, these people barely remembered that they were human.  Doubtless, any one of the people imprisoned in these camps would trade places with an affluent American housewife of the sixties in a heartbeat.  They would certainly make this decision even if they had to accept the listlessness and boredom that went with it.  Women in the fifties and sixties embraced these roles willingly, though they did not always understand the full implications of what they were agreeing to.  By comparing their situation to the situation of concentration camp victims, Friedan minimizes the horrific experiences of people in the camps and trivializes the women’s rights movement.  Friedan’s argument is at best in poor taste, and at worst outright enraging, especially when she suggests that concentration camps were terrible “not because [they] were physically killing” (Friedan 424).  Anyone who has even casually studied the Nazi systematic genocide of Jews will tell you that the daily threat of death was one of the most traumatizing parts.

The obvious flaws in the book give way to personal accounts of women living during this time.  This is where the true heart of Friedan’s novel lies and perhaps the reason it has remained a part of the discourse for so long.  These firsthand accounts of women’s experiences smack of a sincerity lacking in the rest of the book.  Depressing stories such as the suburb of 28 women, where

“Sixteen out of the twenty eight were in analysis or analytical psychotherapy.  Eighteen were taking tranquilizers; several had tried suicide; and some had been hospitalized for varying periods, for depression or vaguely diagnosed psychotic states… Of the women who breast fed their babies, one had continued, desperately, until the child was so undernourished that her doctor intervened by force.  Twelve were engaged in extramarital affairs, in act or fantasy.” (Friedan 335).

This shows the problems women faced as no statistics can.  It is in the hopelessness of the young college graduates, the woman in her 40’s trying to have another baby to give her something to do, and the rampant affairs of suburban housewives, that we understand the need for the women’s rights movement of the 1960’s.  Even Friedan’s personal story, as recounted in the prologue and epilogue, are some of the most compelling parts of the book.  These personal accounts showed women that they weren’t alone in their dissatisfaction with their lives, and ultimately touched a generation of women enough to form the second wave of feminism.  These women’s stories almost completely redeem the rest of the novel, certainly classing it as an important historical document, if nothing else.

The inconsistencies and hyperbole that plague Friedan’s book have unfortunately left her vulnerable to anti-feminist attack.  Friedan was not completely who she portrayed herself to be in The Feminine Mystique.  She grew up Betty Goldstein, attended Temple as a child, and eventually grew up to be a communist activist at Sarah Lawrence, where she attended college.  Although she had two children and a husband at the time the book was published, she was “not a particularly cooperative spouse or attentive mother” (NY Times).   Unlike the housewife she purported to be, Friedan worked for a living for most of her life: at a major magazine, and – after she was fired for having her second child – as a freelance writer.  One scholar even claims that the reason she wrote The Feminine Mystique “had more to do with her Marxist hatred for America than with any of her actual experience as a housewife or mother” (U of Penn).  These attacks do not take into account the fact that Friedan was, indeed, a victim of the Mystique.  Friedan may not have been a housewife per se, but she was trapped in an abusive marriage, and fired from her job for the simple reason that she was pregnant.  Another fact these attacks fail to take into account is the generation of women who identified with Friedan’s account of domestic life and rose up to change it.  Not all the women who rallied around the book were Marxists with a hatred for America.  Many were patriotic housewives, as Friedan claimed to be.  Friedan’s political leanings perhaps color some of her claims, but ultimately they make no difference in the ultimate message of the book.  Unfortunately, those seeking to invalidate the feminist movement have been able to latch on to some of Friedan’s more incendiary beliefs and claims to strengthen their own anti-feminist message.

The Feminine Mystique is certainly a worthwhile read.  Although Friedan often relies on dubious methods to prove her point, the reality remains that her book changed the lives of an entire generation of women.  We look back at these times today as the golden era of American history, but the affluent women of these times were not happy.  Pigeonholed into their roles as wives and mothers and told they could not be anything else; the happy image of a woman in a poufy dress who has everything is not an accurate depiction of the woman of these times.  The Feminine Mystique is invaluable for bringing a greater understanding of this to the women of today.  Overly dramatic, plagued by inaccuracies, and at times outright offensive, this book is still worth the read for the firsthand accounts of the hopelessness of women during these times.  Friedan’s book has remained an important part of the American discourse for four decades, and will undoubtedly be read for many decades more.

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