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.

Everyday Liberating Forces

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. 

For whatever reason, I was having a difficult time figuring out what to write about this week. For a month focused on “Creating a Liberated Future,” there are thousands of things I could be writing about. As much as I brainstormed, I found myself stuck. The political climate in this country sucks, the social systems in this country suck, and there are so many things that don’t feel like they can be fixed, so I felt stuck. Feeling defeated, I called my mom. (Duh.) Though kind and helpful, her ideas weren’t striking a chord with me, until she said, “Women are being revolutionary and liberating themselves everyday. Sometimes they are Uber Drivers, women wouldn’t be drivers years ago and now they can; it’s the little things.” 

Of course, my mom would help me remember my love for cultural and social history, and telling stories that make you feel positive about the future. So I took some time to think about the moments in my life where I see women making one another feel stronger simply by doing or being something they could not have been several years ago. This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it is helpful. 

  1. When I have a woman as a Lyft Driver: I know my mom said Uber, but I do my best not to use them. When I do find myself in a Lyft with a woman as my driver, I feel really safe. When I am in cars with men I immediately am on high alert. But in a car with a woman, I feel like I can relax. I feel like if I felt unsafe or needed help, I could tell her. Several years ago, women couldn’t do that. Even today, it is still dangerous to be a woman driver. So when I see one, I feel hopeful and safe. And for me that is liberating. 
  2. When my friends tell me about how they’re feeling: No matter how hard we try, the stigmatization of mental health is overwhelming and everywhere. But sometimes I’ll be in conversation with women I know well or some that I don’t know well at all, and we end up talking about our mental health. To hear someone else speak to their troubles and then listen to you speak about yours? It makes a huge difference. Feeling like you can be fully yourself even when you’re sad or overwhelmed – it’s radical. Though conditioned to believe that my emotions can be too much for others based on my assumed gender, I feel safe when my close friends share fears and anxieties because then I know I can, too. This is the type of radical love that means a lot to me, and to have those friendships is a liberating force. 
  3. Random women’s history talks with strangers: I feel like I think about history all of the time and so when it doesn’t come up in casual, non-academic settings, I wonder if anyone else really cares. But when I was recently at physical therapy, politics came up. And at some point, one of the younger physical therapists said she had never heard of Anita Hill. The women who were patients and medical professionals from all of the surrounding tables jumped in to talk about who she was and how powerful her testimony was. Everyone in that moment was passionate and angry with how that piece of history had played out, and everyone told stories about either learning about it later in life or about living in that moment and feeling disappointed. Hearing non-academics passionately discuss women’s history is absolutely liberating. 
  4. When women are religious leaders: I know this is a pretty specific example and if you know me personally, you would know that my mom is a Pastor. But here’s the thing: women who are religious leaders are seriously amazing. My mom grew up in a church which believed that women can not be pastors. As an adult, she left that church and pursued ministry in another denomination. Today she is a pastor in a tiny church in Ohio. And her sermons? They are liberating. In an effort to not talk about my mother too much, I’ll give another example. When visiting a friend out of state, she asked me to help her rip the bandaid of moving to a new community by attending a new church with her. Walking in, we were skeptical. Though initially reserved, our guards fell when we saw a woman walk up to the pulpit and start talking. After church, my friend said she would return because though the sermon was good, more importantly, she felt better about being in a place where a woman would be helping her figure out her religious journey. 

    I’m sure these examples won’t resonate with everyone. But I hope that thinking about and reflecting on the moments in life where we see women liberating themselves or others will give us strength as we move forward fighting for equity. I think sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done, and so remembering the things that make us feel strong, no matter how small, are worth thinking about.

Sister, Fear Has No Place Here.

by Cynthia Ann Schemmer

all photos courtesy of the author

This past April I drove to Amesville, Ohio to stay at SuBAMUH (Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home) to conduct oral history interviews with three permanent residents. SuBAMUH is a women’s intentional community located in rural farmland just twelve miles outside of Athens. Established in 1979, the land serves as a home, safe and sober space, campground, and educational center for women. Currently, there are only five permanent residents on the land, but a constant flow of women-identified campers pass through every year. Men over the age of 10 are not permitted on the land.

I have recently become interested in how we, as women, react to the destructive situations we find ourselves in, whether they be physical or emotional, as feminists, lesbians, queers, or heterosexuals. These reactions may be outward or inner, private or in response to society as a whole, but they are completely acceptable in their own respects; we are not mad and we should not be convinced otherwise. We react how we must, in order to resist psychic or physical death and maybe, in fact, we are just not mad enough. Continue reading