This is a book written in the 60s by a white, middle-class American woman, about the experiences of white, middle-class American women. The choice faced by women in Friedan’s book to be full-time housewives was not one many working-class women or women of colour had, and it completely ignores the experiences of non-binary or non-heterosexual women.
Nonetheless, this book gives compelling insights into some of the issues that sparked second-wave feminism and makes for an interesting and somewhat depressing read in 2019, where many of these issues still seem, to me, to be very much woven into the fabric of society.
We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.”Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
The Feminine Mystique is the societal assumption that women can find fulfilment only through marriage, housework, child-rearing and sexual passivity. Friedan’s critique is, amongst other things, based on interviews with full-time housewives (think Betty Draper in Mad Men) that are living this ideal but still unhappy.
While in many happy ways we’ve moved beyond this, statistics today about how housework is split between men and women, or the amount of women in leadership positions point to prevailing similarities in what women are and should be expected to aspire to. As such, this book provides a nice bit of context as to why and how we came to be where we are today.
The perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realises that women are the chief customers of American business.Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
What particularly struck me was the chapter “The Sexual Sell.” Friedan highlights the shift in advertising from buying something to fulfil a purpose (“buy a vacuum to clean better”) to buying something in order to give your life purpose (“having this vacuum makes you a better mother.”) She cites research by advertisers showing that the greater the lack of identity and purpose in a woman, the easier it is to make them buy things.
When I look around today and see how much of the media is focused on making women feel like they’re lacking, so they buy more things to make up for it, I see it as a sad continuation of this phenomenon and one of the reasons The Feminine Mystique still has power today.
The problem that has no name […] is caused by adjustment to an image that does not permit [women] to become what they can now be […] although by doing so they may also have evaded that lonely, frightening feeling that always comes with freedom.Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
While I don’t agree with everything Friedan says, I do agree with her idea of a “life plan” for women. We should not be expected to find fulfillment by living through others. Instead, it is living for ourselves through education, interests, and meaningful work that makes fulfillment an achievable goal.