(Fist pub 1963, currently W. W. Norton & Co. 2002, 512pp, RRP £12.99)
Betty Friedan (1921 – 2006) was an American feminist, activist and writer, is often attributed to starting the second wave of feminism through the writing of her book The Feminine Mystique. Fredian co- founded the National Organisation of Women (NOW) and was its first president, serving from 1966 to 1970. Friedan also helped found NARAL (originally National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) in 1969 and always remained a staunch advocate of legal abortion.
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan explores what Friedan calls ‘the problem with no name’. By this, she is referring to the discontentment and perpetuated unhappiness of American housewives. Beginning with a discussion of an informal survey she conducted on her college classmates fifteen years after their graduation, Friedan states her intention to find out if the condition of ‘housewife’ was having a similar negative affect on her peers, as it was on herself. She found that many other women felt dissatisfied with their situations. Friedan challenges the social assumption that women should be content to define themselves as wives and mothers and not aspire to goals external to the home.
The Feminine Mystique outs Friedan as a liberal feminist concerned with the inequality of the genders and subsequent inferiority of women within society. She exposes the myth that women experience a ‘calling’ to the role of housewife and questions the supposed ensuing happiness and natural ability which has traditionally been intertwined with this vocation. She considers housewifery to be more of a socially constructed limitation than a factor of feminine destiny.
The main points of this book (that women should be able to decide what to do with their lives and should not succumb to what is expected by them by a patriarchal minded society) seem to have been taken out of context by several prominent feminists. In The female Eunuch Germaine Greer dismisses domesticity and motherhood as a viable career choice. It is acts like this that have contributed to the construction of hierarchies within female experience. The assertion that women who choose to identify primarily as wives and mothers are inferior to those who chose to pursue careers has divided the feminist community and instigated a negative image of feminism within society.
The Feminine Mystique could easily be criticised for offering a somewhat limited analysis of the problem of domestic dissatisfaction. For instance, the notion that women could be cured of troubling psychological conditions simply by getting a job appears to underestimate the entirety of the problem. Friedan does not consider that women’s experience as the inferior gender is created and internalised from a young age and can therefore not be eradicated by seeking employment (in which, it can be assumed, similar inequalities occur). However, the book is still a priceless analysis of where culture has prevented optimum achievement for women.
The book is primarily an academic text and is written as such. However, it also manages to convey a vast amount of experience, empathy and understanding that does not rely on its academic style to make valid points and consider important questions.
Reviewed by Michelle Kempson