This short book summary will be the first of three which collectively focus on a mix of contemporary and classic feminist texts. I hope to provide people with a general overview of each book, the author and the social context in which the book was written.
Friedan, B. (1963). The Feminine Mystique. Penguin, London.
Let me begin by expressing how much I enjoyed reading this book. It was given to me as a gift when I left my voluntary job and I began reading it a couple of weeks before Christmas . I read the majority of it whilst in work, sometimes before I started if I happened to get in early, but mostly on my breaktimes. I had heard so much about the book being great but not a lot about the actual content or main arguments made within the book, however, when I started to read it and place it within the social context of post-war America during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the magnetism of the book drew me in and I began to realise what others had spoke about in reference to The Feminine Mystique (1963). I suppose it was a kind of realisation that yes, most women are unhappy when placed in the mould of housewife and mother alone and yes, in their hearts they strive for more, but do they go out and get this ‘more’ which they long for? Friedan (1963) informs us that no they don’t, not really, and if they do, it most often stops short of the point of satisfaction.
Reading words which were written at a time when they were rarely spoken aloud, for me, gave the book a controversial edge. As an artefact belonging to the early phase of second wave feminism, Friedan’s (1963) work sets out to reveal and share details of ‘the problem that has no name’- the deliberate manipulation of women by advertising agencies, editorial boards, journalists, educators, Freudian psychoanalysts and others alike, to believe in a false belief system. This belief system tells women that they must fit the mould or have their femininity stripped of them, for to be a housewife and mother is the greatest achievement a woman can obtain and if she fails, she fails as a woman.
Friedan (1963) argues that this false belief system keeps women trapped in a state of perpetual infancy wherein they are never allowed to grow and realise their own worth and true potential. As I read the book, I felt myself agreeing with a lot of the things she wrote about this. When women live in a society in which domescity is a synomyn for femininity, all other possibilities of womanhood are erased. Domesticity therefore acts as a mass distraction, keeping women from becoming full women- women who know their own femininity, enjoy their sexuality and who do not feel threatened by education, employment or stepping out of their mother’s shoes.
Friedan (1963) explains that during the post-war years, men returned from war and it was no longer necessary for women to be employed, seek education or do anything other than stay at home looking after the house and children. Women were told that they had a choice about what to do with their lives. If they really wanted to they could seek education or a career, but at a time when resisting conformity surmounted to failure as a woman, how could they choose freely?
Betty Friedan published the words that thousands of women had uttered to themselves whilst wading in discontent. Friedan (1963) showed the female population that they could do more than what was expected of them. They could break the mould into a thousand pieces if they were determined enough. Framing her words with excerpts from some of the 200 open ended questionnaires she conducted with her former college classmates, Friedan’s (1963) work was pioneering and daring. Many claim that it planted the seed of second wave feminism by highlighting the social and political stagnation experienced by women across America and having sparked the consciousness of women all over the world, many began to embrace feminism and social activism as a means to achieving equality.
It has now been 50 years since The Feminine Mystique (1963) was first published and the impact the book had at its time remains unparalled. In the decades preceding The Feminine Mystique (1963) ‘the problem with no name’ has gradually drifted away from the realm of domesticity to focus on women’s appearance; their beauty or lack there of. The false belief system Friedan wrote about, to me, is very similar to Naomi Wolf’s description of ‘the beauty myth’. The Beauty Myth (1991) acts as an updated version, a contemporary analysis regarding the new mould women are expected to fit. Therefore this problem; this weight holding women down like an anchor tied around our increasingly thin waists, still exists, the mould has merely changed shape.
As one of the most influential leaders of second wave feminism, Betty Friedan helped to found the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Friedan continued to teach and write about women’s inequality, consistently voicing her concerns, until she died of congestive heart failure in 2006 at the age of 85.
I will be posting the next book summary within a week so please check back or follow my blog if you are interested. It will focus on Ariel Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture.