The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan
Published 1963
American Non-fiction

If you want to read The Feminine Mystique, I found a free copy on FromBook.net and was able to read it there for as long as I needed. And I definitely needed a lot of time.

What was the Problem?

During her career as a writer, Betty Friedan began asking questions: Why do magazines treat women as children? Why are only men's pursuits presented, but not women's? Why should women be relegated to housework, keeping a man, and caring for children? And... 
"When did women give up the world and go back to the home?"
Friedan's search for answers led her to write The Feminine Mystique, published in the early 1960s, which in turn triggered what is today called The Second Wave of Feminism. 

Her hunt illuminated two kinds of women: pitifully unfeminine women with high aspirations for careers and truly feminine women who desired marriage and family; unfortunately, the feminine women had a bigger problem: they lacked fulfillment. It was a "problem with no name," and the author believed she understood exactly what it was.

These unhappy housewives felt incomplete, invisible, as if they did not exist; they did so much, but felt dissatisfied about who they were. Many of them were educated, but their ultimate end was only to serve a husband and children.

Friedan termed this false assumption that women can only find self-fulfillment through being a wife and mother, doing housework, being sexually passive, and practicing excessive consumerism as the "Feminine Mystique" (FM)She said "the new mystic makes housewife an occupation, like a religion, a glorious end," and she marked 1949 as the year of change that "there is no other way to be a woman," or "there is no other way for a woman to think of herself except as a wife to a husband and mother to her children." 

Friedan interviewed women over ten years and discovered that American women did not know who they were. Why did women go to college and become educated only to neglect their education? And the other problem was, why were those women who did pursue careers unmarried and without children? How could women merge both situations, develop the new role, and prepare young girls for this possibility? 

More Problems

But this was half the problem because Friedan also learned that women suffered from a fear of growing up and making personal decisions. They married young and lost themselves in their families and housework. By age 40, many wished they had finished college. 

After so many gains for women in the 1920s, why would women go home again? Friedan said it started in the 40s with Sigmund Freud who was stuck in the Victorian Era, and it filtered into magazines, movies, books, education, and experts. I'm not going to get into Freud because he had some severe mental and sexual issues. Unfortunately, his views were adopted by the American culture as textbook, and generations of educated women were brainwashed. "The FM, elevated by Freud, told girls to go back home and live like Nora restricted to the doll house of Victorian prejudices."

Women seemed to have two choices: either prepare for a lonely, celibate life and career or develop a temporary occupation only to sacrifice it for marriage and motherhood. 

But wait! 

There was another problem uncovered: unhappy mothers stuck at home were now psychologically stunting the emotional growth of their children. Friedan included studies to show that children of working mothers actually fared better than those with unhappy, immature moms at home. So the new question became "Can mothers be better mothers if they have a serious purpose in their lives?

Another part of the puzzle was consumerism. Friedan thought women were fooled into thinking their lives would be made better by purchasing all that they needed to be the better housewife and protector of their families. There was hidden dirt and evil germs to kill all day long to keep one's home safe, and the FM glorified the work women had to do. 

Friedan also claimed that homes were created to keep a woman from privacy, to follow her real interest. There were no walls -- no room to call her own -- continuously picking up after everyone else, entertaining children constantly. By the way, sharing housework with one's husband did not fill the void. "Togetherness is a poor substitute for equality." Importantly, the problem wasn't that the housewife had too much to do, but rather that very little was asked of her at all.

Friedan made a great comment about the change of American character. She said, "The responsibility for self-government was often a burden to bear rather than a right to be maintained. Students who were given complete freedom to manage their own lives and make their own decisions often did not wish to do so. This passivity of students today is more than boredom; it is a deterioration of human character!"

So this may have been why young women choose marriage because there was no reason to grow up, and they rather be taken care of. In fact, husbands themselves were not as important as the marriage was. And young males just wanted a mommy figure as a wife. This was the cycle that kept repeating itself. 

Friedan said that identity could not come through housework or taking orders from husbands or children. Furthermore... 

the housewife could not deny that the world was rushing by and she had no place in it.

How to Solve the Problems? 

Friedan suggested a new life plan: housework should not be a career and should and can be done quickly and efficiently. Say no to all those things that made house work more than it needed to be. 

About marriage, she warned women to see it as it really was: over glorification of the FM.

Remember: when you make room for yourself, you enjoy your husband and children more often.

The only way women could find themselves, to know themselves, was through creative means of their own. A job was not the answer unless she could take it seriously and contribute to society. It also must be done apart from home and family, so that there were clear distinctions between what was home and what was strictly her own.

Education was also key. The author believed there needed to be all kinds of national education and reeducation programs for women and mothers.

Finally, Friedan said women must compete as humans, not women, as citizens, not housewives. Life work should be geared toward one's own abilities and be manipulated to work together with changing life situations. "Know that marriage and motherhood are essential, not the whole."

Source: BrainPickings

What do I think? 

The Feminine Mystique is irrelevant now. Women have options today: school, work, career, start a business, travel, hobbies, or traditional marriage and family. Many accomplish multiple options simultaneously. Also, Friedan's arguments were redundant and repetitive, and I sped  through the sections on sex, sexuality, homosexuality, and penis envy. Psychology bores me, and I disagree with it anyway. 

I agree that woman should find ways to manipulate circumstances to fit marriage, family, and work. Some women don't want to compromise, and therefore rather focus on one thing at a time. That is her prerogative. 

I did wonder if Friedan manipulated her experiment to get the desired results, or if she honestly found ten years worth of unhappy, regretful, young and old women with all the same exact dilemma. Did she find any woman who did not lament about missed opportunities or another life? I don't know.

Granted, a lot of what Friedan said was true -- about housework, lack of privacy, feeling useless, etc. Maybe if no one (like Friedan) pointed out what it was (giving it a name and identifying the symptoms), women may have never guessed they suffered from this. Marriage and motherhood are difficult, and being a stay-at-home mom myself, it, like any job, can be burdensome at times. All of those disillusions will visit you at one time or another.

The FM & Religion

I was curious how a religious or Christian woman fit into all of this because I know religion presents complications. Only toward the end did Friedan mention that Catholic or Jewish women would have difficulty escaping the FM because "it is enshrined in the canons of religion...and in their church's dogmatic definitions of marriage and motherhood."

Religion plays a larger role than society cares to admit. Given that God created marriage, I think these issues should have been looked at through a biblical lens. But Friedan is not biblical, and I did not expect her to have a biblical answer. So I'll give it a shot instead. 

God designed marriage to pattern Christ's relationship with His Church. The man is representative of Christ, while the woman is representative of the Church. The husband has the primary responsibility for the relationship; he is obligated by God to imitate a mature, loving, Christlike responsibility, that the marriage pattern be joyfully fulfilled...(not by being the woman's superior, by the way). While both have unique roles to fulfill in the marriage, the husband is responsible to make sure the relationship  is good; and if not, to see that it is resolved. 

Unfortunately, sin has ruined the marriage pattern and the roles men and women have in marriage and the world. Both are equal in the eyes of God, compliments of one another, but man unfairly manipulated marriage and neglected his role in it. It is partly why women have been unhappy in marriage, motherhood, and in her general role in the world. Yet it is not entirely man's fault because a woman shares responsibility to remember her place before God. When she seeks to solve conflict according to her own will and without God, she will definitely struggle with issues of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and a lack of fulfillment. We are all dissatisfied with the world, and worldly pursuits usually do not satisfy forever.

Final Point

Overall, your worldview, your comprehension of what your purpose is in this life, and what you value most will determine how you handle those temptations of restlessness when they come. And they will, regardless of what you are doing. I do wonder if the new life plan that Friedan advocated for -- of pursing education, career, or life work seriously --- truly was the answer that filled the void of unhappy women, or if today's generation of women are just looking for something else to make them happy?

Betty Friedan 1921-2006


  1. Excellent last question! And like you, I do sense that Friedan was probably looking for examples to bolster her philosophy. It's an interesting topic though and one that will never go away.

    When she talks about a career though, I think a bigger problem nowadays is finding a job that is meaningful and fulfilling, that makes you better as a citizen and makes society a better place. I'm thinking back to John Taylor Gatto (The Underground History of American Education) when he mentions that jobs have been reduced to often meaningless tasks, where we don't have connection with the whole and therefore often don't even know if our work benefits anyone on an ethical scale. It makes us less as people.

    Perhaps instead of separating into separate camps (housewife vs. career woman) we can each look at what is meaningful to us (which will differ for each person) and focus on that with other things surrounding it. Personally, I think the modern woman is spread too thin. A wise old lady once said to me that she thinks women are worse off now because a woman now not only works but also looks after the household and the children too. Generally I think she may be right. In any case, lots of food for thought here. You are certainly branching out in your reading!

    1. Great point about finding meaningful work. Friedan was clear on this, and I agree with her, too. It must be meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling....not just any ol' job. That should come naturally to every human, to make his or her work useful. I feel badly for people in China making crappy Happy Meal toys. Bad example, maybe, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

      I understand her argument that there was a definite problem in the 50s. I believe it has resolved itself, but may have also presented new problems, like the one you addressed. Personally, I knew I did not want to compromise myself, and that is why I quit working (which was meaningless to me) and focused on raising my kids, which I love. I do have my own private thing that I do for myself, and that is through reading and writing and talking about books. And it works for me.

      So, yes, each woman must choose what works best because we are all made differently. Women have a buffet of options before us, but not many can have it all, at least simultaneously. That is false advertisement. We must be realistic, or we will burn out. But it is possible to accomplish much more than our mothers and grandmothers, if that is what some want. (I'm just not sure that is what will make women feel satisfied and happy...)

      Thanks for your input!! :)

  2. This is such a fascinating review and topic, Ruth. Loved reading your and Cleo's thoughts.

    I was just thinking the other day about the 40s/50s worldview the author describes. Even though it's often referred to as "traditional roles," I tend to think of it as very 20th century. It wasn't so unusual for women to work or farm alongside their fathers and husbands before the industrial revolution, and later the post-war era (unless they were upper class, I guess). I feel a home-centered life, where work is at or close to home and the father is more present, has been a great loss since 20th-century prosperity and workaholic culture.

    As far as stay-at-home moms, I have so many thoughts but can't really go into them without talking about relatives, so will have to refrain...

    I guess what I've noticed most is, freedom is a great thing, but there is no perfect situation. You just have to be at peace with the choice you make, and realize a non-uniform society will at times favor someone else's lifestyle over yours, not necessarily for bad reasons. (As a single person in WA, for example, I have to accept that I pay taxes to fund paid family leave, which is something I'm unlikely to use.)

    It seems fair to say full-time homeschooling is unpaid teaching labor, often by mothers. I think if our society really cares about all teachers, that should be addressed.

    "When she seeks to solve conflict according to her own will and without God, she will definitely struggle with issues of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and a lack of fulfillment." This is so good.

    1. "I feel a home-centered life, where work is at or close to home and the father is more present, has been a great loss since 20th-century prosperity and workaholic culture."

      Brava, Marian! I feel the same way!

    2. Thanks, Marian.

      To clarify, I think it may be me using the "traditional role" wording bc Friedan spoke about those very pioneering women who worked on the farm, built their homes, and grew their own food and made their own clothes. But pioneer lifestyle changed in the 20th c., so you are correct. Women's roles changed again. I agree too that the work-aholic/competitive world has changed family and home very much, and not for the better.

      About the unpaid full time homeschooling...it would be nice if parents/individuals who did not use the public school system received a tax break from those bonds that pay for the school systems they do not use. That would be nice, imo.

  3. I do wonder if "experts" like the author was not guilty of cognitive bias and only heard the women who were dissatisfied. There is no solution for ultimate fulfillment in anything other than inside Christ. I've been married, a mother, a single mother and finally married again. I love my work, but having to have a career and be a mother was so stressful.

    Yet I have great memories of raising my son and also of my career.

    Whether you stay at home or work, as long as you don't neglect your children or husband (and the husband shouldn't neglect the woman either), it only makes sense and has purpose inside the will of God.

    Great review!!

    1. Thanks, Sharon.

      Yep, I wonder that, as well, that Friedan was leaning toward a premise and sought out women in this position, who may not have believed otherwise until it was brought to their attention. I do know that the author felt some kind of guilt for participating in spreading this idea that women belong at home bc it is the womanly thing to do. But she also ascribed to Marxist ideals and that may have also caused her to begin thinking outside traditional realms. But I don't know.

      There is no concrete law for women in the Bible, although it does talk about the woman being a manager of her home. But it also talks about female leaders and women who financially support their households. I think a woman needs to be right in her conscience to do what she is doing, so long it is not for selfish ambition. Today a woman can work and contribute financially to her household, while also being available to her children and husband. But she needs to be right in her own mind about it. I didn't want to do it and I quit work after 3 1/2 years. Even after that, I did some odd jobs on the side and politically volunteered for awhile, but after a few years I wanted to dedicate all of my time to my homeschool and my family. The more I juggled, the more things suffered, and I didn't want that. But every woman is different.

      Like you said, whatever it is, it makes sense and has purpose inside the will of God.