“The Feminine Mystique” Book Review

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When I first began reading “The Feminine Mystique” I was invited to attend a symposium celebrating 50 years since this seminal feminist work was published. After attending the conference, I bristled at the harsh critique of Friedan. Many of the panelist took her to task for looking at housewives during the 1960s through a white, affluent, educated, heterosexist lens. At this point, I had read three chapters and did not agree with their assessments. Now, after ending the book, I couldn’t agree more.

According to Friedan: “The most glaring proof that, no matter how elaborate, Occupation: housewife is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin, arose from the comedy of ‘togetherness’ ” (248).

Reading “The Feminine Mystique” constantly brought up the same questions: Who is discounting the work of housewives: women, men or society at large? And if women were paid a fair wage for their housework would that make a difference in how it’s viewed? I could never tell whether the women Friedan wrote about were truly bored with their lives as housewives or simply felt unappreciated and their work undervalued in a commodity based society. Friedan offered a lot of surveys and studies to back up her claims, plus anecdotal accounts from these women. Still, the question remained who assigned value to these women’s roles in society.

Friedan advocated for women to pursue careers outside of the home in order to save themselves from being a dreaded housewife. This proclamation probably sounded revolutionary back then, but 50 years later, we now see how careers can often complicate, not simplify, the lives of wives with children. Friedan never provided solutions for how husbands could share in the domestic burdens of their wives. Instead, women were encouraged to leave the housework behind and go out and become individuals, via their careers, like men! As if doing activities labeled “masculine” are the sole means for which people can become individuals and realize their potential. Except what happens to the housework and children in the process? Should women avoid getting married and having children and simply pursue their careers first?  What role does the man play when the woman goes to work? Friedan introduced the problem but didn’t give many nuanced solutions.

Throughout the text, what remained clear was how white, middle-class, educated women felt pressured to forgo post-graduate degrees or their careers and focus on obtaining financial stability and social prestige by becoming housewives. This pressure is at the heart of what Friedan dubs “The Feminine Mystique.” Women playing roles that were assigned to them rather than pursuing the roles that they wanted based on their talents, intelligence and interests.

Friedan periodically points out that her book is based on some women’s experiences in American society. She pointed out how race, class and education influenced whether or not women could choose the role of housewife or laborer during this time period.

Still, as a woman of color, it’s hard for me to feel sympathy for a group of white, upwardly mobile women who were bored and/or treated dismissively as a result of their decision to become housewives. Friedan consistently argued that being a housewife was not good enough for these women. “Surely there are many women in America who are happy at the moment as housewives, and some whose abilities are fully used in the housewife role. But happiness is not the same thing as the aliveness of being fully used. Nor is human intelligence, human ability, a static thing. Housework, no matter how it is expanded to fill the time available, can hardly use the abilities of a woman of average or normal human intelligence, much less the fifty per cent of the female population whose intelligence in childhood, was above average” (255). In other words, being a housewife is beneath the intelligent, dynamic (white) women in Friedan’s book. Which is why even though Friedan mentions women of color and women of different classes, it is clear that her goal is not to enlighten us about the mediocrity of housework, but empower those highly intelligent, upwardly mobile white women who have given up their passions to become housewives. To them she offers encouragement: strive to do more! Why? Because these women are worthy of a rich and fulfilling life.

The feminine mystique caused all sorts of problems. Not only were women bored and unappreciated but their role as housewives left them alone for most of the day. As a result, these women became “sex-seekers.” Friedan described sex-seekers as suburban housewives with insatiable sexual appetites that only the most perverse and constant sexual acts could satisfy.  The feminine mystique, according to Friedan, glorified and perpetuated femininity (a passive and immature state) to the point that mothers passed on these passive and immature traits to their daughters as well as their sons. As a result, the sons became homosexuals! They participated in this immature sexual act for the same reasons the sex-seeking women become promiscuous: in a search of reassurance through sexual connection (275).

Wow!

This book, while groundbreaking, offered a narrow view of feminism and the role of women in American society. Friedan assigned too much power to the impact being a suburban housewife had on women, their value in society, their relationships with men, and the sexuality of men and women. Friedan provided a lot of simple truths, but often times overstated her case.

12 thoughts on ““The Feminine Mystique” Book Review

  1. There is one aspect that is often overlooked and ignored in criticizing “The Feminine Mystique”. You touched on it, but didn’t go into much detail.

    “What role does the man play when the woman goes to work?”

    Gender roles are not “The oppression of women” but interconnected interdependent divisions of labor that places burdens and obligations on both men and women.

    Friedan’s White Feminism is the feminism of white affluent educated heterosexual women. This excludes racial minorities and homosexuals and the poor and the uneducated. It also, and more importantly, excludes men. This is not to say men are more important, but that men are a HUGE portion of the population and that issues men face are intersectional with issues of poverty, race, education and homosexuality.

    1. The role a man plays when a woman goes to work is any role him and his partner agrees works best for their family unit. I can’t define those roles for men nor do I want to do so. It’s all about partnership and people doing what makes the most sense for their families rather than adhering to external standards and expectations. You’re right, gender roles are not “the oppression of women” technically but in the past those roles have been historically defined by heterosexual men of privilege and used as the basis for keeping their female partners at home raising their children. Now we live in an age where each individual can customize their roles within a relationship instead of embracing socially acceptable roles based on their particular body parts. Men and women in partnership can decide if they will embrace those traditional roles, abandon them all together or find a version that works best for them. Friedan was calling for women to empower themselves and speak out. What she failed to fully understand was the challenges non-white, un/undereducated, underprivileged women faced when attempting to assert their voices in heterosexual relationships.

      1. Gender roles are not and have never been defined by heterosexual men of privilege, nor have they been used to keep their female partners at home raising their children.

        Gender roles evolved organically to best utilize the strengths of both men and women creating interconnected interdependent divisions of labor to best maintain a stable society. We do now live in a very different world than the edge of extention world 10,000 years ago when humans where first developing gender roles. If we should change the gender roles we need to change them for both men and women, not just women, because gender roles are imposed on both men and women and they are interconnected and interdependent.

        Friedan was saying one of two things. Women are lesser than men. They need help and support to break their gender roles where as men can do it with strength left over to help others. Or that men don’t matter, they are just disposable utlities to be used up and discarded. Men aren’t really people that are bound to gender roles just like women are.

        Neither of these sentiments are ones that I can support, and It turns my stomach that any one can.

      2. I’m curious as to how you’ve come up with the idea that gender roles were first starting to develop around 10,000 years ago. Since the oldest living human remains were found by scientist far longer than 10,000 years ago: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/turns-out-humans-are-complete-mongrels/

        If human beings existed on the planet for longer than 10,000 years, according to scientific findings, what gender roles existed for the last hundred thousand years or so? Clearly, gender roles did not start evolving 10,000 years ago. Our modern idea of gender roles comes from men in power (i.e. heterosexual, educated, wealthy, land-owning, white males) determining the division of labor in and outside the household.

        Friedan did not say women were lesser than men. This is your interpretation of the material. What she did state was that women need to first empower themselves, pursue their educational and career paths, then figure out what role best suits them (solely wife/mother, or career woman/wife/mother, or some other variation) instead of assuming that their role is ONLY wife/mother based on the fact that they were born with female genitalia. Women redefining their roles in and out of the household is not an assault on men. Please cite from the book where Friedan states or alludes to the fact that men are “disposable utilities to be used up and discarded.” If a man’s masculinity and sense of worth is directly tied to a woman playing the role of wife/mother than his masculinity and sense of worth will always be threatened. Tying ones role to another person’s perceived role in a partnership, in this day and age, is tenuous at best.

        It appears, after taking a glance at your blog, that you have an issue with feminism. As a womanist, I have issues with feminism as well. No viewpoint is without its advantages and disadvantages. If my viewpoint turns your stomach, please feel free to not read and comment on my blog.

      3. And one more thing. You’re doing exactly what Friedan did, which was apply the white, heterosexual family structure based on gender to non-white, non-heterosexual families. You’re looking through a very narrow lens. For example, for African-Americans in the U.S. gender roles are not as rigidly defined as you described based on sexual organs: http://www.lesley.edu/journal-pedagogy-pluralism-practice/safiya-jardine-arlene-dallalfar/sex-gender-roles/

        External factors, particularly institutional slavery, determined AA’s roles in and outside the family home. Historically, in AA families, both men and women were expected to work outside the home and take care of domestic duties. Only in recent years has this dynamic shifted and more and more women are staying home and raising their children while their partner goes out and works. And even more are using a method of child-rearing and work balance that works best for their family. I’m sure other variations on the strict gender roles you describe exist in multiple family structures that are non-white, non-heterosexual and/or blended due to the number of partners (such as polygamy and polyandry) in a relationship, for example.

      4. So, 10,000 years. I use this number because it’s really big, but still believable. If I was talking about how gender roles developed in humans 5 million years ago in our not-yet-human ansesters I would loose lots of people.

        The traditional gender role for men is disposable utility object. To ignore this gender role that is interconnected and interdependent with the female gender role is to reinforce this gender role. Freidan wanted to improve things, but only for the people with the correct genitalia, reinforcing disposable utility object on the people with the wrong genitalia.

        Finnaly my position is far from flawless. I am a white male. I can only speak from a white male perspective, it’s the only perspective I’ve got. I’m not a feminist claiming that I’ve got some Divine Truth. What I’m saying is that the Divine Truth that most feminists claim to have is even more Bunk than you think.

      5. I have yet to encounter any feminist who claims to hold a Divine Truth. It’s unfortunate that you have experienced feminist in this way. I implore you to take a look at womanism. There are three major branches of womanism, the one I adhere to was coined by Alice Walker, writer of the “Color Purple.” Walker describes womanism poetically as: Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” (21). Currently, I am reading the book, “The Womanist Idea” by Layli Maparyan. She explains the metaphysical structure of the womanist idea and provides case studies regarding its application in the real world. About Walker’s form of womanism, Maparyan writes, “Embedded within her intentionally poetic and impressionistic definition of womanist is the recognition that it is this partitioning impulse itself that oppresses human beings-not race, gender, class, and the like, which are merely servants. Womanism recognizes, in a way that has heretofore remained underarticulated, that this partitioning impulse oppresses everyone, not just the people on the downside of any dichotomy. The partitioning impulse and the dichotomies it generates diminish the humanity of all humanity…(21). I provide this as an example because there are plenty of movements that embrace the full humanity of all people, even within feminism. Feminist are not one monolithic group, and the theory has gone through multiple waves over the years (I think this time period is the fourth wave of feminism) as more voices and ideas are added to the movement. I think the public image of feminism is often confused with the core ideals of feminism, the most important being gender equality. Period. It’s all about women having the choice to decide the course of their lives and not be bound to the role of mother/wife simply because we have female genitalia. Simple. How people apply those ideals varies because we all bring our prejudices, biases, level of comprehensions and experiences to the table. No where in feminism or womanism is it stated that women hold a Divine Truth about the sexes (if someone says this to you, they are representing themselves, not feminism), nor is the improvement of conditions for people with the “right genitalia” over people with the “wrong genitalia” advocated. I have no idea where these concepts you’re referring to originate, but they are not rooted in the core ideas of feminism, nor womanism. In addition, Freidan did not refer to “right” versus “wrong” genitalia anywhere in her book.

        Finally, please define “disposable utility object.” I am a librarian by profession and I have yet to find any articles, books or materials describing men in this way. If this is a traditional gender role for men, then some academic resources should exist on the topic. I also did a Google search, and could not find a source for this phrase in non-academic settings.

      6. So two things. First and formost when I want to know what a word means, I look in the dictionary. I’ve looked in at least a dozen different dictionaries and every single one with out exception defines feminism as “The Advocacy for Women’s Rights”. It is not a stretch to call this improvements of conditions for the people with the correct genitalia. What ever else feminism may or may not be every dictionary agrees that it is at the core trying to improve things, but only for the people with the correct genitalia, Women’s Rights.

        If Womanism really says that it’s not race class gender etc that is oppressive, but the partitioning of people and this partitioning oppresses everyone, why is one specific group in the name if that group isn’t to receive unique and special attention to improvements to their conditions? There are lots of gender neutral race neutral class neutral orientation neutral words that could have been used instead of Womanism if Womanism wasn’t arguing for benefits for the named group, Women.

        2nd, “disposable utility object” as a description for men goes against 50 years of established threat narrative that feminists have very successfully propagandized. The real test isn’t if the professional victim feminists of academia are using a phrase, but if the phrase speaks the truth.

        Also I do belive this was first used in Warren Farrels Book “The Myth of Male Power”. So resources do exist on the topic, you are just unfamiliar with them.

      7. I do not appreciate nor welcome your combative and dismissive tone to my blog. Rather than continue this discussion, I will simply state an adage I adhere to in life: “Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference” –Mark Twain

        Going forward, I will be blocking you from commenting on my blog because you are filling it with your personal opinions rather than supporting your arguments with facts. From the comments you made about gender roles starting 10,000 years ago, to your ridiculous claim about right and wrong genitalia, it’s apparent to me that you’re trying to incite an angry response from me and thus validate your image of the feminist who believes in her own Divine Truth. Nothing you have said is rooted in facts or supported by any substantial, peer-reviewed materials. Please take your projections about feminist, anger and ignorance elsewhere.

  2. Thought-provoking review of Friedan’s book. It was considered revolutionary when it first came out. White, college-educated women in the 60s and 70s, bored and stuck in suburbia with only small children for company, felt isolated. They were trying to find their voice. For many of them, Friedan’s was that voice.

    I liked the slant you brought to the review as a woman of color. You are quite correct in your assertion that Friedan only spoke to a select portion of the population. I like that you pointed that out.

    Well done – I enjoyed reading this. I’ve started following you – I think I will enjoy reading your thoughtful reviews.

    1. Thank you! I appreciate it. Your blog is quite beautiful and I am following you as well. I hope that you are able to transform from a meek legal assistant to a writing superhero full-time.

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