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The Feminine Mystique

The Book That Sparked Women's Liberation

By

Betty Friedan 1980

Betty Friedan at a 1980 conference on families

Marilyn K. Yee / New York Times Co. / Getty Images

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, published in 1963, is often seen as the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is the most famous of Betty Friedan’s works, and it made her a household name. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s would later say The Feminine Mystique was the book that “started it all.”

What is the Mystique?

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan explores the unhappiness of mid-20th century women. She describes women’s unhappiness as “the problem that has no name.” Women felt this sense of depression because they were forced to be subservient to men financially, mentally, physically, and intellectually. The feminine “mystique” was the idealized image to which women tried to conform despite their lack of fulfillment. 

The Feminine Mystique explains that in post-World War II United States life, women were encouraged to be wives, mothers and housewives - and only wives, mothers and housewives. This, Betty Friedan says, was a failed social experiment. Relegating women to the “perfect” housewife or happy homemaker role prevented much success and happiness, both among the women themselves, and consequently their families. At the end of the day, Friedan writes in the first pages of her book, housewives were asking themselves, “Is that all?”

Why Betty Friedan Wrote the Book

Betty Friedan was inspired to write The Feminine Mystique when she attended her Smith College 15-year reunion in the late 1950s. She surveyed her classmates and learned that none of them were happy with the idealized housewife role. However, when she tried to publish the results of her study, women’s magazines refused. She continued working on the problem, and the result of her extensive research was The Feminine Mystique in 1963. 

In addition to case studies of 1950s women, The Feminine Mystique observes that women in the 1930s often had education and careers. It was not as if it had never occurred to women over the years to seek personal fulfillment. However, the 1950s were a time of regression: the average age at which women married dropped, and fewer women went to college.

Post-war consumer culture spread the myth that fulfillment for women was found in the home, as a wife and mother. Betty Friedan argues that women should develop themselves and their intellectual abilities, rather than making a “choice” to be just a housewife instead of fulfilling their potential.

Lasting Effects of The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique became an international bestseller as it launched the second-wave feminist movement. It has sold more than one million copies and been translated into multiple languages. It is a key text in Women’s Studies and U.S. history classes.

For years, Betty Friedan toured the United States speaking about The Feminine Mystique and introducing audiences to her groundbreaking work and to feminism. Women have repeatedly described how they felt when reading the book: they saw that they were not alone, and that they could aspire to something more than the life they were being encouraged or even forced to lead.

The idea Betty Friedan expresses in The Feminine Mystique is that if women escaped the confines of “traditional” notions of femininity, they could then truly enjoy being women.

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