“The Feminine Mystique”: Fifty Years On

Can you believe it’s fifty years since “The Feminine Mystique” came out? I couldn’t and I’m almost as old as the book!

I’m not a modern historian or an American historian, so I’d never had cause to read the book before. I’d read selections from “The Feminine Mystique” over the years but never sat down to read the entire work until this 50th anniversary edition appeared. I was inspired by seeing Emily Bazelon’s post on her own reading at Doublex. The book is well worth digging into, particularly in this edition which includes multiple epilogues and introductory materials from earlier editions. They provide snapshots of how Friedan’s book was seen at launch, ten, twenty and many more years after. This reiterates the enormous impact that her book had on readers then and later on as well as upon her own life, including her work as a co-founder of NOW.

However, the meat of the book remains the text itself and “The Feminine Mystique” stands up well as a readable work, even half a century on. Friedan’s perceptiveness in describing ‘the problem without a name’ is bolstered by material from her own research, interviews and countless other contemporary sources. Where contemporary society encouraged men to pursue higher education, careers and grow in fulfilling ways, the mystique, bolstered by some cherry-picked elements from Freudian psychology and functionalist philosophies, urged women to subordinate all of those elements to their gender-mandated and absolutely certain fulfillment as a wife and mother. The problem was that so many women were driven to despair by the frustrations that they encountered in what was marketed to them as the ultimate in personal fulfillment and rewarding feminine duty. The mystique also contributed to a precipitous decline in the age of marriage across the American middle class. Higher education for women was condemned as counter to their natural and rewarding mission at home so that even women’s colleges began to step back from the academic programs they’d fought so hard to offer in favour of helping women prepare for their “Mrs.” degree path.

The book lays out a damning case for how the mystique ran counter to the previous trends in American middle class culture where women’s freedom and initiative had been celebrated. More damningly, Friedan shows how the mystique was endlessly useful to marketers in the burgeoning era of consumerism as well as their peers in the worlds of magazines, education and so on. Margaret Mead comes off rather badly for pushing the mystique’s key message to urge women to embrace domestic service to husband and children early and totally while she, herself, did no such thing.

The book is flawed in my mind by an excessive reliance upon psychoanalysis. Many chapters focus in detail on this subject beginning with a long background on Freud’s own problematic relationships with and understanding of women to page after page where Friedan uses psychoanalysis to diagnose problems in American housewives and their families all deriving from the toxic powers of the mystique. It is also relentlessly middle class: the world of the working class is almost non-existent except when evoked as servants!

I also couldn’t accept her dismissals of homosexuality, particularly in men, and autism in children as consequences of pathological mother-love run amuck or improperly applied but, as I read those sections, I knew that she was approaching these topics using the thinking of the time. It’s impossible to expect a book from 1963 to speak with the voice of 2013 all the time. The strength of “The Feminine Mystique” is that it evokes the past so vividly you’ll think you’re reading a modern history until you’re jolted back into reality by those occasional tone-deaf moments.

Occasionally you might feel a deep sense of depression as you read about the ways in which marketing heavily reinforced the mystique’s domestic mission. Friedan’s story about how many women attempted to fit the mold and failed is also sobering. No wonder the Stones did so well with “Mother’s Little Helper”!

If you want to understand the U.S. middle class culture of the 1950s and 1960s as how it played out in the media, medical, educational and marketing industries as well as in the personal stories of countless women, you should pick up Friedan’s book and get to reading! (And follow me at Goodreads where I’d initially posted a version of this review.)

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