The Feminine Mystique: Notes & Review

the feminine mystique book cover

The Feminine Mystique is a social analysis of the life of women in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the US.
Betty Friedan, the author, starts by describing a general “malaise” and unhappiness of most American women and also expands on the general role of women, feminism, and history of women’s rights.

Bullet Summary

  • The feminine mystique is a false narrative depicting women as happy housewives who find fulfillment in domestic chores, raising children and supporting their husbands
  • Women suffered in trying to live up to the idealized, fake image of the happy housewife
  • The feminine mystique applied social pressure on women not to look to “smart” or “career-focused” in fear of appearing too masculine
  • We will only overcome the feminine mystique when men and women work together

Summary

What I found fascinating is how Betty Friedan ended up writing “The Feminine Mystique”.

Originally, she wanted to write an article. But she could not get it published it because, she says, it ran against the zeitgeist and the narrative of the happy housewife.

The Problem That Has No Name

Women across the US show a widespread sense of unhappiness, emptiness, and unease. 

But most of them don’t want to talk about it and, even when they do, they cannot pinpoint the causes.
The fact that they have everything from a material point of view but are still unhappy without being able to find a cause makes them even more lost and ashamed for their own unhappiness. 

Advertising also took advantage of the widespread unhappiness to sell product and help women reach the ideal of the happy woman represented by the feminine mystique. 

The Culture That Create The Feminine Mystique

Friedan makes the point that, in part, the feminine mystique narrative was a male creation and it’s no coincidence that it started when many journalists and editors returned after the war had ended.

But it wasn’t just pop-journalism that perpetrated the feminine mystique.

The author has a beautiful analysis of Sigmund Freud, his personality, and his theories.
She says that some of Freud’s theories like the penis envy were re-interpreted and enlarged in scope.
And some other poor Freudian theories such as the female inferiority were uncritically adopted as truth.

Sociologists also threw their weight behind the feminine mystique when they confused what “is”, ie. the female housewife, with what “should be”.

And finally, there is advertising, who loved to encourage women in becoming “experts of the house” and buy all the best products and machinery for house upkeep and house cleaning.

The Root Causes of The Female Malaise

The author says that the malaise arises because women are pressured into a role that they didn’t choose.

When women comply with the feminine mystique they are not developing their true identities and they are not doing what they really want to do.

And while men can fulfill all their needs with a life outside of the home as well, women can only fulfill their most basic physiological needs while remaining psychologically unfulfilled.

The Solutions Are Education and Positive Examples

The author says that the solution to the malaise is to encourage women to study and learn.

And to show them that there is no real dichotomy between motherhood, work, and outside of the family fulfillment.
Women can work and lead happy family lives.

My Note:
I wholeheartedly agree with that. There must not be a dichotomy between happy motherhood, happy family life and fulfillment and career.

Finally, Betty Friedan says that efforts to lift women out of the feminine mystique must be supported by men as well.
Men will also benefit with happier, more fulfilled women, and I couldn’t agree more.

My Note:
I fully agree with the author.
It’s only fearful men who are afraid of more emancipated women and I want to make an article on this soon.

What The Feminine Mystique Means to You

In my opinion, part of the feminine mystique and the pressure it applies to women will never fully go away.

It will always stay there for two reasons:

  1. Most men don’t understand women and female psychology
  2. Feminine women who adopt the “feminine mystique” do have a dating advantage

That’s why there will always be some women who choose, consciously or unconsciously, to play that role.

And the women who decide to pursue their career also sometimes end up not completely fulfilled if their family and dating lives are not as good. Some career women end up resenting the women who play the “feminine mystique” role because they make them feel less feminine and make them less successful at dating.

Read more here:

the feminine mystique book cover

Real Life Applications

  • Female emancipation follows “waves”: women be ready

A great lesson learned for many women is that female emancipation (or repression) has so far moved in “waves” throughout history.

Periods of high emancipation have been followed by a period of higher repression or oppressive narratives such as the feminine mystique.

Women should keep that in mind and be ready -or teach their daughters to be ready- at any cultural turn.

  • Housewives make for poor mothers: follow your passions

Women who stay at home and have no other interests and hobbies tend to raise more neurotic children.
They also tend to live vicariously through their children, whom they see as an extension of themselves.

CONS

  • Much of the research is based on interviews

A lot of the stories that go into “The Feminine Mystique” are based on anecdotal evidence.
I still believe that anecdotal evidence, at least in this case, is valid and can be (somewhat) representative.
But we must still mention it as a potential limitation.

  • Poor analysis of infidelity

The author says there is a connection between emancipation and sexual satisfaction, which is true, but then loses the plot.

I found the analysis of infidelity through the feminine mystique to be somewhat lacking.

  • Leftist and silly comments on economics

“The Feminine Mystique” sounds a bit like the leftist “No Logo” at times, and I think Friedan should have been more careful on her approach towards different disciplines.

She writes for example:

Abstractions of “balance the budget” did no mask for women the danger of gutting government programs that protect the children and older people..

When she talks about “balancing the budget” as an “abstraction” that matters less than the people, the author betrays ignorance of basic economic principles.

A properly balanced budget does not stand against the people but it allows for good caring of the people.
Funding prosocial programs must be done, but within the budget, or at least with a plan for eventually paying it.
Or those same children she wants to support will be paying for them… 

  • At times espouses silly complotist theories

Sometimes I had to wonder how such an intelligent woman who provided such a good social analysis could stumble on some basic idiocies.
The author, for example, implies that the tobacco industry is getting women hooked to smoking while men are quitting.

And she makes it sound as if that were a plan to keep women dependent.

Total nonsense.
If the tobacco industry wanted to make money, it would try to hook both men and women.
Or should we say that the tobacco industry in China is trying to get men dependent, since men there smoke more?

  • Generalizes the malaise: what about happy housewives?

I wish Betty Friedan had also said that there are plenty of happy women who stay at home and it can be a healthy, fulfilling choice for some.

It’s a small caveat but it would have spared her lots of critics and it would have made her message more compelling and even more scientific (because blanked generalizations are almost always wrong when it comes to people and social sciences).

Review

Wow, this book must have been such a huge eye-opener when it first came out. 
In today’s terminology, it would be a true red-pill book.

Albeit it has aged a bit I would have been a raving fan back in the days.

But still to this day, “The Feminine Mystique” is a great sociological analysis and we can learn a lot from it.
Both on male/female gender dynamics and on general social-psychology.

I also particularly appreciated that Betty Friedan rejects and “call to arms” and sends out a message of unity, a message where “together” is better and stronger than “against”.

And I couldn’t agree more.

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