The Feminine Mystique

by

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique: Epilogue Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When The Feminine Mystique was being prepared for publication, Friedan decided that she would go back to school to earn her PhD, despite having been out of graduate school for twenty years.
Friedan realized that she, too, had made the “mistaken choice” of allowing a man she loved to convince her to give up her ambitions to be his wife.
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Friedan got letters from other women who wanted to escape the feminine mystique and pursue their own ambitions, outside of the home. Though it was no longer possible to live as “just a housewife,” women wondered how else they could live.
Advertising and other messaging from popular culture had constructed the image of the adult white woman around the model housewife. Furthermore, few, if any, women they knew had jobs.
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After The Feminine Mystique was released, Friedan became a pariah in her own neighborhood. She realized that she had exposed a problem that women thought they were suffering alone and that reminded them of feelings, in regard to the problem that has no name, which they did not wish to face. Friedan understood that fear because she, too, had experienced her own years of playing “the helpless little housewife” and staying in a bad marriage out of fear of being alone.
A combination of embarrassment at the sense that Friedan had revealed a personal secret and resentment at her success put Friedan at odds with her neighbors. They had made compromises in their lives—marrying and having children young, forgoing their educations—to conform to the “mystique” and did not want others to know how unhappy it had made them.
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Conferences were soon held and entire journals were devoted to the subject of “women and their options.” A few “exceptional” professional women had encouraged other women to go into continuing-education programs, for they could not really expect to get “real jobs” after fifteen years as homemakers.
Women who had “made it” in male-dominated professions under the assumption that they were exceptions to other women did not want to lose their sense of being special. They also did not want additional competition in their fields.
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In 1965, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women released a report that detailed wage discrimination and recommended childcare services to make it easier for women to combine work and motherhood. 
Women’s political mobilization had encouraged the government to examine social concerns that were unique to women, particularly the absence of affordable childcare.
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Noted anthropologist Margaret Mead opposed women going to work, asking, who was going “to stay home and bandage the child’s knee” and “listen to the husbands’ troubles” after he returned home from work? Friedan argues that Mead was committed to other women remaining at home so that she could maintain her status as an “exceptional” woman.
On the subject of women’s lives, Mead contradicted herself. She lamented women’s “retreat into the cave,” or their full dedication to domesticity, but also insisted that they stay there. Her authority rested on the exclusion of other women from her field.
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Friedan argued that women (particularly, white, middle-class women) needed a political and social movement like the Civil Rights Movement for black people. Friedan went to Washington, DC after Title VII, which banned sex discrimination in employment, had been passed. The man in charge of enforcing it did not take the legislation seriously. A number of women in government, the press, and labor unions worried that the law would be sabotaged.
While Friedan’s call for another feminist movement was an effort to focus on the needs of women, her distinction between the Civil Rights Movement “for black people” and that which would be for feminists, suggested that the movement would focus on the needs of white, middle-class women.
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A private conversation between Friedan and a young female lawyer who worked for the agency that would do nothing to enforce Title VII led to the idea to start the National Organization for Women. Friedan co-founded the group with Pauli Murray, a prominent black female lawyer, several female union leaders, and Aileen Hernandez, a member of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
Though Friedan distinguished between the Civil Rights Movement and a movement to mobilize women (presumably other white women who had been the targets of the feminine mystique), Friedan formed her organization with two black women, which suggests that the movements were related.
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Friedan saw the women’s movement as a revolution in sex roles, not as a struggle for race or class equality. She also wanted men to be equal members of the movement, “though women would have to take the lead in the first stage.”
Friedan was disinterested in exploring how oppression was different for women of different classes and races. Her privilege as a white, middle-class woman made her think that her experience was the universal experience for women.
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Though radicals disliked the capitalist aspects of Friedan’s message, she insisted that equality and human dignity would not be possible for women who were incapable of earning income. Women also had to confront their sexual nature, which required them to have access to birth control and safe access to abortion.
Friedan defined autonomy in the context of women’s earning power and their ability to make their own reproductive decisions. Furthermore, control over reproduction was essential to a woman’s ability to work and to participate as full citizens.
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Friedan did not see men as the enemies of women but as fellow victims, “suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique” that had isolated them. Men and women would never really come to know and love each other as long as each remained trapped in their roles.
Men were also playing a sex role defined by a rigid ideal of masculinity which prevented the full range of human expression and which forced men to submerge their personalities in favor of playing a role.
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Though the women who started NOW were middle-class, they did not have easy access to money. Housewives could not get money “to fly to board meetings” and women who worked could not get time off from their jobs and did not want to spend time away from their families on the weekend.
Dependency on their husbands kept women from pursuing activism. If money did not prevent them, they felt a sense of guilt, not always unrelated to the “mystique,” about not being more available.
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Friedan testified before a judge in 1966 regarding a sex discrimination lawsuit against airlines who were forcing flight attendants to resign at age thirty. The underlying reason was that the airlines saved a lot of money by firing the women before they could collect pay increases, vacation time, and pension rights. The flight attendants won the case and hugged Friedan in gratitude for being able to remain in the airline industry past thirty, even after marrying and having children.
The airline lawsuit exposed one of the ways in which companies exploited female labor, as they had in the nineteenth-century. In this instance, however, the “mystique” was used as an excuse, with the assumption that women would be less interested in work when they reached the age at which it was assumed that they would be married with children.
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Friedan “felt a certain urgency of history” which encouraged her to pursue the issue of abortion and to push for adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution to end officially discrimination in employment opportunities.
Like the suffragists, who were motivated by the abolitionist movement, the fact that black people had won legal rights to equality inspired Friedan and others to pursue the same for women.
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Friedan spent the 1960s giving lectures and talks all over the country in a variety of settings: colleges of home economics, Harvard and Yale Universities, lunch at the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel with fifty members of NOW demanding service from the wait staff, testifying before the Senate against the nomination of a sexist justice, a “rap session” with the National Student Congress, and meetings with women in SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society, who were afraid to speak at meetings out of a fear of turning off men and not getting husbands.
Friedan’s notoriety brought her into contact with activists of all ages, including those who were more radical than she. However, she noticed that young women in radical movements played supporting roles and were afraid to do more out of fear that they would ruin their chances of attracting men. Thus, the feminine mystique persisted among the younger generation.
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Friedan appreciated bold moves from young radicals, such as protesting the Miss America pageant. However, she opposed those who encouraged man-hating and class warfare. They threatened to take over the New York chapter of NOW and drive out women who wanted “equality but who also wanted to keep on loving their husbands and children.”
Friedan agreed with the protest of the pageant due to its reinforcement of ideals of femininity. However, she did not accept that having feminist principles meant abandoning domesticity completely. The feminine mystique had forced women to make that choice.
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It became clear to Friedan that “someone’ was trying to take over the movement or splinter it. The radicals’ focus on sexual politics struck Friedan as absurd. She did not think that “clitoral orgasms” would liberate women by making them less dependent on men sexually.
Only in this one instance in the book does Friedan entertain a conspiracy theory. Her focus on the movement only consisting of women like herself did not allow her to recognize that other perspectives existed.
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Some of the “disrupters,” she observed, came from extreme left groups looking to “proselytize lesbianism” and others promoted sex and class “warfare” which Friedan believed was based on “obsolete or irrelevant analogies of class warfare or race separatism.”
Friedan’s homophobia is evident here as well. She did not see lesbians as fellow sufferers in oppression, though some of them had married and had children to conform to the ‘mystique.’
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On August 26, 1970, NOW organized a march to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. The purpose was to unite women around what Friedan considered to be the most important causes: equal opportunity for jobs and education, the right of abortion and childcare, and women’s share of political power.
Though these may not have been the most important causes to all women, Friedan seemed to believe that they were the most feasible goals. They agreed with her belief that women could not include their voices without economic power and control over the number of children they had.
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When Senator Eugene McCarthy, the chief sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment announced his campaign for the presidency, Friedan contacted New York Congresswoman and activist Bella Abzug to ask how she could help McCarthy’s campaign.
McCarthy was one of few men in politics who identified with feminists and took an interest in identifying and solving the problems of women. His campaign also included women.
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In 1970, she argued that women had a responsibility to help end the war in Vietnam. They had to convince young men going to war that they did not need “to napalm all the children in Vietnam and Cambodia to prove they were men.”
In their pursuit of a masculine ideal, young men went to war to demonstrate their maturity.
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In Miami in 1972, women played a major role in political conventions for the first time. Feminists won commitments from both parties “on child-care, preschool, and after-school programs.” Furthermore, Shirley Chisholm, a Congresswoman from New York, stayed in the race as a presidential candidate “until the end.” Friedan predicated that, by 1976, a woman will run for vice-president or president, possibly even on the Republican ticket.
The inclusion of women’s issues in political platforms proved that women’s issues had gained enough popularity to get the attention of politicians seeking women’s votes. Chisholm’s presidential run was a bold move, due to her being a black woman. It represented the recent successes of both the Civil Rights and feminist movements.
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The agenda for what Friedan called “Stage 1 of the sex-role revolution” had been accomplished. The ERA had passed Congress, the Supreme Court had ruled that no state had the right to refuse a woman an abortion, and companies had to “take affirmative action” to end sex discrimination” and other issues that kept women out of leadership positions.
For Friedan, the first steps toward freedom had been taken, but the work of undoing learned sex roles would be an ongoing project. By including more women in every aspect of society, those roles could more effectively be challenged through increased visibility.
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Friedan had also been asked to organize groups in Europe, South America, and Asia. She was hoping to have the first world conference of feminists in Sweden in 1974. Friedan believed that “the man-hating” element of the feminist movement would evaporate and did not exclude the possibility that they were “a planned diversion.”
Friedan did not see the feminist movement solely within an American context, but rather as a global movement. She expected that when women saw the issues they had in common, they would join a common political effort. “Man-hating” was a petty distraction.
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Just as liquor sellers had lobbied against the Nineteenth Amendment, Friedan believed that there was a campaign to ‘block the ERA.” Employers in Ohio gave women a week off to cross the Kentucky border and protest against the amendment to pressure the Kentucky state legislature. Friedan did not see this as a conspiracy of men, but a manipulation of “the fears and impotent rage of passive women” by profiteers.
Women, who had probably been paid by their employers to participate sometimes fought against reforms that would improve their lives, both due to pressure from men in their lives and fear of what the changes would mean. Conservative women were partially responsible for the failure of the ERA.
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Friedan realized that she could not encourage others’ freedom without realizing her own, so she got divorced in May 1969. She became a visiting professor of sociology at Temple University and continued to write.
Friedan realized that one’s personal life was political. She could not encourage women to stop stunting their development in favor of conforming to constrictive gender roles if she was doing the same.
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