The Feminine Mystique Summary

Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique

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The Feminine Mystique Summary

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The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, ushered in a second wave of feminist thought and progress in the United States. The book’s overall message that the only acceptable role of housewife and mother does not fulfill women reached over one million readers in 1964, a year after the book was published. Friedan concluded that by forcing women into so narrow a role in society, they were at risk for identity loss and subsequent unhappiness, despite having a home and family.

In Chapter One, Friedan begins by discussing that women are marrying younger and younger. Fewer women were pursuing education beyond high school, and more women were having more children. Yet overall, women were less happy than in previous years. At the heart of this problem, Friedan says, is the notion that these unhappy women thought their problems were personal because this lack of identity outside the sphere of the home was not discussed openly.

Chapter Two drills down the discussion to focus on women’s magazines. Friedan points out that men were in charge of the editorial decisions of these publications, who highlighted women who fit either into the category of the happy housewife, or the unhappy woman in a career. Twenty years prior, in the 1930s, women in magazines were depicted as independent. Many of them pursued careers, and found confidence in their identity.

Friedan turns inward in Chapter Three to show how she herself gave up a career to raise her children. She discusses the drive to find a husband, and how many women feel that if they take the time to educate themselves, to work, to mature and self-identify, then they will miss their window of opportunity for marriage and a family—that they will essentially fail in their destiny. Chapter Four recounts the history of the feminist movement, including suffrage, up until the 1950s. In Chapter Five, Friedan uses her education in psychology to counter the ideas put forward by Sigmund Freud, which include a woman’s destiny as a wife and mother, and the notion that women who sought professional careers suffered neuroses.

Next, in Chapter Six, Friedan takes on the idea of functionalism, which attempts to reduce women to their biological capability as mothers and nothing else, placing before them the burden of maintaining the status quo by fulfilling that capability. From her criticism of functionalism, Friedan moves on to discuss its impact on education in Chapter Seven, where she presents the dangers in the shifts in that field that took place from 1940 to 1960, wherein women were taught subjects that related primarily to housekeeping, instead of offering studies that would require them to face the mental and emotional challenges that prompt maturation.

In Chapter Eight, Friedan examines the effects of World War II and the Cold War, which caused Americans to yearn for home comforts. That yearning spawned an idealization that featured males in the role of breadwinners, and females in the role of housewives. This was fueled further by the dismissal of the many women who took over men’s jobs during World War II. The notion of women needing to stay at home was supported by the advertising industry, and this is the focus of Chapter Nine. That industry in particular fashioned housekeeping into a type of career in order to sell women more house-cleaning products.

Chapter Ten contains interviews with housewives who find their work of keeping the house demanding and unfulfilling. In Chapter Eleven, Friedan covers the topic of sexual fulfillment, which not only becomes a focus of many housewives who find their housekeeping work unfulfilling, but also drives a wedge in these women’s marriages.

In Chapter Twelve, Friedan discusses the impact on children growing up with mothers trapped by the feminine mystique—they are disinterested in emotional growth and therefore they themselves lack identities. Friedan then references Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and concludes that in order to reach self-actualization, women need meaningful work in the same way men do. In the fourteenth and final chapter, Friedan resents case studies of women who have swum against the current, denying the feminine mystique and seeking careers that provide the types of mental challenges and emotional maturation that can lead to fulfillment and self-identification.

Millions of copies of The Feminine Mystique have sold worldwide. Because of that and the influence on the feminist movement, Betty Friedan’s book has been an influential work of nonfiction. It prompted many of the social, economic, and political changes that have taken place in the United States of America, shaping national and international cultures for over fifty years. The struggle for equality of the sexes has been a long and ongoing one in America and worldwide, but this book not only chronicles but explains the origins for many of those struggles that women—and men—still face today.