The Feminine Mystique


Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan was the oldest of three children born to Harry Goldstein, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who worked as a jeweler, and his wife Miriam Goldstein, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant who worked as a journalist until Friedan was born. Friedan attended Smith College where she studied psychology and graduated summa cum laude in 1942. She spent a year at the University of California – Berkeley on a fellowship to pursue advanced work in psychology before moving to New York City in 1943. While there, she worked in a series of odd jobs until meeting Carl Friedan, an aspiring theater producer and advertising executive. They married in 1947. The couple had three children and settled in Rockland County, New York where Friedan became a homemaker and a freelance writer. Her research on The Feminine Mystique began during the 1950s when she conducted a survey among her fellow Smith alumnae and found that many of them lived discontented lives as housewives. The publication of the book heralded the arrival of the second-wave feminist movement. Friedan used her influence to pursue the political aims she had adopted in her youth. In 1963, she helped found the National Organization of Women (NOW), for which she served as its first president. She also helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, renamed the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) after the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade (1973). In 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with the Congresswomen Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug and the activist, Gloria Steinem. Friedan also pursued the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She continued to write and engage in women’s issues until her death from heart failure in 2006.
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Historical Context of The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan marks the 1940s as the decade in which “the feminine mystique” entered the American consciousness. While men were fighting during World War II, women took over many of the jobs that would have normally gone to men. They were particularly active in the munitions factories that built the weapons and equipment that soldiers needed. Work gave women a sense of purpose and independence, which many of them relinquished to become housewives after soldiers returned home in 1945. With the inclusion of a guaranteed mortgage loan in the G.I. Bill, white soldiers and their wives found it easier to finance their dream homes in the suburbs, where many of them began families. Friedan cites fears over nuclear annihilation during the Cold War as part of the reason why men and women sought the comforts of domesticity in the suburbs. Due to their seclusion in middle-class white suburbia, many women were relatively unaware of desegregation efforts in the South in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those white women who were involved in community affairs sometimes led desegregation efforts in their school districts. Such community involvement, coupled with growing awareness among politically-engaged women that they needed their own Civil Rights Movement, led to the development of the second-wave feminist movement, whose beginning was marked by the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The second-wave feminist movement, which became particularly active in the early-1970s, picked up where the first-wave movement left off. The fight for suffrage had defined first-wave feminism, leading to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, in 1920. Second-wave feminists protested against discrimination in education and employment and advocated for reproductive rights. The Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade (1973), which granted women the right to obtain an abortion in any state, is regarded as a crowning achievement of the second-wave movement.

Other Books Related to The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique is a sociological study written in the subjective voice that characterized New Journalism—a type of non-fiction writing in which authors included their own voices or made themselves a part of the experience about which they were writing. New Journalism did not merely convey facts, as traditional journalism did, it also included the author’s interpretation of and relation to those facts. Other works of New Journalism include Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Joan Didion’s study of the 1960s, The White Album (1979). Other feminist works that addressed the oppressive conditions that society mandated for women include The Second Sex (1949) by the French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), which went further than Friedan’s work in its critique of men, consumerism, and the nuclear family.
Key Facts about The Feminine Mystique
  • Full Title: The Feminine Mystique
  • When Written: Late-1950s
  • Where Written: Rockland County, New York
  • When Published: 1963
  • Literary Period: New Journalism
  • Genre: Non-Fiction
  • Setting: The United States
  • Antagonist: Sexism and the Feminine Mystique
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for The Feminine Mystique

Smith College. The small, women’s liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts graduated several key figures in second-wave feminism. In addition to Friedan, Gloria Steinem—who clashed with Friedan over the role of men in women’s lives and the importance of marriage and family—graduated in 1956. Catherine MacKinnon, an anti-pornography activist and law professor, graduated in 1969 and later led the effort to declare sexual harassment in workplaces and schools sex discrimination.

“The Lavender Menace” and Radical Feminism. By the 1970s, Friedan had become a target of criticism among radical feminists who resented her advocacy of marriage and childrearing for women, as well as her wish to exclude lesbians from feminism, an influence that she labeled “the lavender menace.” Black feminists, such as bell hooks, criticized The Feminine Mystique for its singular focus on white, middle-class women, many of whom were educated, claiming that the lifestyles Friedan described in the book did not mirror those of millions of other women.