How The Feminine Mystique Dismantled 1950s Domestic Life

By Rebecca Rranza

The quote “no woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor” comes from Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. The Feminine Mystique was a widely read and influential work for middle-class white women of this time and it helped contribute to the Second Wave Feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Second Wave Feminism drew attention to many issues regarding cis gender women such as domestic violence, abortion rights, and pay equality. At this time, feminism in America was multifaceted and fought for on many different platforms such as consciousness raising groups and the Miss America Pageant protests of 1969. Betty Friedan cofounded the National Organization of Women (NOW), along with Shirley Chisholm, Muriel Fox, and others. NOW, which has a liberal feminist agenda with goals such as promoting equal rights, is still running from its founding in 1966. Friedan’s activism and writing were well known in the Second Wave Movement and her book was the culmination of research and testimonials of real women focusing on their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Friedan uses personal anecdote, social science, psychology, sexuality, etc. as different lenses that her work sees these women through. 

While The Feminine Mystique had a profound influence on how women thought about feminism during the 1960s and 1970s, it is critical to acknowledge its shortcomings in terms of intersectional analysis. Much of Friedan’s analysis focuses on elite white, cis, heterosexual women which excluded working class, trans and queer women of color. The limited scope of Friedan’s feminist perspective meant that the women her work reached were predominantly privileged. 

Prior to the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the 1950s ideal woman was a white, ablebodied, cisgender, heterosexual American housewife and mother. The “problem with no name,” coined by Friedan, describes the need for more than society and their families is offering them. These housewives want to exist for more than a household and their desperation grew from silence into anger. From the 1950s image of an American mother and housewife to the social movements of the 1960s, the lives of women who had the socioeconomic agency to be feminists began to change. The book starts off with this iconic quote from the first page,

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” [1]

Women read that passage and realized it didn’t have to be all. They realized they could be multifaceted people. The groups women had formed, like NOW or the more radical feminist groups, like the Redstockings, were spaces they could exist and speak freely. By examining Friedan’s text from a contemporary lens, one finds that despite necessary criticism to the text and to the movement, it is clear this text had an impact on society at the time and on the minds of women. Once they were more informed, they were ready to use their knowledge to impact change in their lives and other’s lives. It was significant to history even years later. Millions of women who read the book, or did not, heard its message of anger and discontent in many women’s lives and lasted through the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Feminine Mystique led to real change in the lives of people then and now. 


Notes

[1] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. 1.


Works Cited

Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems With ‘The Feminine Mystique’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 10, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems-with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/.

 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.


Rebecca Rranza is a first-year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

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