Thursday, January 20, 2011

Friedan - Feminine Mystique

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

"The Problem that has no name," the Feminine Mystique expects women to find complete fulfillment through marriage, raising children and caring for the house as a housewife. This circumstance, peculiar to post-WWII women, has prevented women from achieving their full intellectual and, indeed, personal fulfillment as women. Women are expected to forgo their own lives - careers, ambitions, etc. - to submit to the vision of the feminine mystique. Friedan writes to raise awareness of this issue, to announce to women that they are not alone in having these feelings, and to destroy the Feminine Mystique by encouraging women to balance marriage and family with a meaningful career.

The early portion of the book is constructed off of cultural analysis, including the analysis of advertising and writing (fictional and non-fiction) in women's magazines, which Friedan herself had been a contributer of. Friedan reveals a change in the image of a fulfilled woman as presented in these materials - fulfillment became "happy kids, a clean house, a working husband."

Friedan both subscribes to and takes issue with Freud. She accepts some of his arguments for the sources of psychological problems for both genders, but takes it one step forward in suggesting the feminine mystique leads to unhappy mothers who seek fulfillment through their children, thus leading in turn to psychologically unhealthy sons and daughters. On the other hand, she accuses Freud of completely mis-understanding women, portraying them as "maneaters" and generally labeling them as a feebler sex.

Friedan also criticizes universities for pushing women into the home and (along with professions who fire married women) making career and marriage an either/or proposition. Also, she notes and attempts to disprove a stigma that educated women have less satisfying sex lives.

Where this Fits in
Culture, in the Feminine Mystique, is a dangerous force that subconsciously shapes values and images of fulfillment. In 1950s America, culture has warped women's understanding of how they can achieve fulfilling lives.

The Feminine Mystique is about the 1950s. In launching a social movement, it is a primary source. It is more sociology than pure history, but it nonetheless contains interesting cultural analysis.

More than any other text I have read, I was reminded of Mad Men as I read this book. That television show really sets out to explore the ramifications and drama caused by the Problem That has No Name in the early 1960s.

It is what it is - ground ground breaking, in fact, that it is dated. I was most surprised by how much Friedan is specifically criticizing the gender roles of the 50s, rather than the gender roles throughout history. She very much sees the Feminine Mystique as a recent problem, NOT a timeless problem.

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