The Feminine Mystique

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Feminine Mystique
Betty Friedan, 1963

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes

I don’t make it easy on myself sometimes. This isn’t a perfect book, but it’s important and it’s fascinating.

If you only know a little about The Feminine Mystique, you might know that it was a big catalyst for aspects of the female liberation movement in the 60s and 70s. You might know that it’s about the unhappiness of housewives: the “problem with no name.” If you haven’t read it, you might not know that it’s less a polemic than it is a dissertation.

That’s not to say that it isn’t passionate and full of the anger at the forces in society that convinced a generation of women that they could only be fulfilled as a wife and mother. It’s just a balanced, banked anger that I wasn’t expecting. Friedan wasn’t sure how many people would be on her side; she backs up her points with extensive quotes and cited sources.

Parts of it are definitely dated. She spends a chapter taking apart the gendered assumptions created by the then-popular acceptance of Freudian theory, then later uses pieces of Freud to support some odd declarations about parenting. And trust me, it’s better if you just skip everything related to homosexuality. Yes, it’s mostly concerned with the problems of middle-class white women.

That all said, parts of it are not dated at all. The conviction that no matter what you choose it’s wrong, especially when it comes to parenting. The call for a balance between motherhood, career, love and purpose. Most of the section on homosexuality is cringeworthy, but she makes the connection between homophobia and misogyny.

She questions claims for biological instincts related to gender roles and makes a case that to be human is to have a purpose beyond oneself, and to reach one’s full intellectual capacity.

The most interesting parts for me were the parts that really clarified how society has both changed and not changed since the book was written. Some trends have reversed (some more than others) and some have merely metamorphosed. One great chapter was full of quotes from sales consultants about their strategies to convince women to be, not just housewives, but exceptional housewives, so they could sell them ever-more-time-consuming THINGS.

Some of the quoted language around why some people believe women don’t need x (where x is the vote, schooling, jobs, self-determination…) wouldn’t be out of place in the “reverse sexism” claims among certain people in the men’s rights movement of today.

The idea that if you care too much about ideas or your career, that you’ll never get married? That idea hasn’t fully left us.

Overall I found this book dry/academic and inspiring by turns. Although my favorite part may have been the afterwords. I have the 50th anniversary edition, and it includes both a heartfelt afterword by journalist Anna Quindlen and a reflection by Friedan from 1997. This final word from her recounts how her life changed after the book and shares her account of the foundation of NOW and the women’s strike of 1970. It chronicles how far she thinks we’ve come, how far we have to go, and what the next great hurdle would be.

She was right again, because we’re still facing that hurdle today: it’s breaking down the masculine mystique so that rather than growing ever more frustrated at the loss of power, men can work toward authenticity and self-determination alongside women as equal partners in humanity.

4 Stars - Not perfect, but important.

Also! Friedan noted that part of why women in her time were vulnerable to these messages and cultural constructs was that women forgot what their mothers and grandmothers had fought for (the vote, etc.). It’s easy to take the past for granted. I highly HIGHLY recommend the recent documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, for first-hand accounts of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s. Available on DVD and streaming.

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