Review: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Cover of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and quote: 'The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.'

If you ever chance upon any feminist book recommendation list this book is bound to be on it. The Feminine Mystique is one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. Published in 1963 this book is one which marks the start of the second-wave feminism. It is a book which stunned generations of women out of a ‘sleeping beauty’ slumber.

The Feminine Mystique is about the post-WW2 American women who after the men came back from the war were gently pushed back into the old housewife/mother role. This happened after the first wave feminist movement of the late 19th century and beginning if 20th century during which women earn the rights to vote, to be educated and employed. Thus the generations up to the 1920s enjoyed the benefits the feminist movement won for them to the fullest.

But what happened after?

‘The fact is that to women born after 1920, feminism was a dead history. It ended as a vital movement in America with the winning of that final right: the vote.’

According to Friedan the women born after the first wave of feminist movement ended had outgrown the old image of what a woman should be and how should she live. They were free to be who they wanted to be… Did they though?

According to Friedan, American suffered, and for a long time, it was a suffering most of these women bore alone. The question these women asked themselves where ‘Is this it?’

But why would these women ask themselves these questions if they were free to do what they wanted? The answer is that they didn’t! Even though many were educated or were undergoing education, as soon as they married (and they were encouraged to do so) they dropped out of school or left their jobs and dedicated all their lives to being a housewife.

All these intelligent women doing housework and raising babies… According to the fashion of the time that was the most honorable way a woman should live. Being a housewife was how a woman fulfilled her feminine role.

And if they wanted to do something else, like work (oh, those rebels), they learned that that was unfeminine.

‘They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights – the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity. All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.’

What Friedan discovers through research and thousands of interviews is that these women were not feeling well. They felt that their lives were empty and meaningless. Cleaning and raising babies did not satisfy them to the fullest.

Women are also human and cannot be seen only as housewives and mothers. What about their intellect? The intellect they honed while studying which opened their minds and made them passionate about the subject they studied? Should they forget and be satisfied by being housewives?

Friedan explores this new feminine mystique which kept women from living up to their full potential, and which made them feel empty and desperate. She explores the problem from different perspectives and gives plenty of examples to underline her points. Certain chapters were harder to read, others I flew through. Ultimately, I found this book, though a bit long, fascinating.

You might think this book is outdated. And yes, its main target is the American women of the 1960s. After reading it, though today we live in a completely different world, I see how important knowing about it is. Because more than giving us a portrait of the American woman in the 1960s, it gives also a portrait of women in general.

It urges its readers to think of women as humans, equals to men in intellect and drive. It urges us to think about what we want to do in life and to discover and embrace ‘that inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.’

I would love to read a book on the same topic but focusing on the more recent times…

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