Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Anne Taintor
 Reviewed by Christina
I read this as part of A Year of Feminist Classics.  Head on over there for some discussion about it! 

Published: 1963

It's about: "In 1957, Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion; the results, in which she found that many of them were unhappy with their lives as housewives, prompted her to begin research for The Feminine Mystique, conducting interviews with other suburban housewives, as well as researching psychology, media, and advertising. She originally intended to publish an article on the topic, not a book, but no magazine would publish her article."  (wikipedia)
The book, now a classic, served as the spark for 2nd-wave feminism.  Thanks to its widespread readership and popularity, Betty Friedan was able to connect with other feminists and take measures to change the situation of women in the United States; she started NOW in 1966.

I thought: Wow, was this a reading experience to remember.  Rarely do I read something that makes me examine my own life choices and the culture that influences them.  I honestly feel a little twilight-zone-y after reading The Feminine Mystique.  More about that in a minute.

1st ed.
Though it's nearly 60 years old now, the basic tenets of The Feminine Mystique are still sound: Housewifery is not fulfilling in itself for most women, especially for women who were drafted into it by societal default rather than making an educated, informed, mature decision.  And yes, it's important to develop one's own identity first, rather than depending on husband/children/home to supply that identity.  Every person deserves to express him or herself through creativity, leadership, and/or meaningful work.  These ideas are not radical to most modern readers; we accept them as basic "right to pursue happiness"-type truths.  But in Betty Friedan's time, these things needed to be said.  They needed to be argued for, and she lays out the history of feminism and antifeminism brilliantly.

The Feminine Mystique will probably be most strikingly relevant (eerie, really) to readers who, like me, come from an especially conservative religious background.  There are still communities in which "career women" are vilified and all women are expected to embrace SAHM-ness as their divinely-appointed role.  That's why I think this book was a healthy one for me to read.  I feel justified in wanting more than I get from staying home with my kids, and I feel better about taking anti-feminist religious teachings with a grain of salt, now that I know a more about the cultural history that may have had a strong hand in creating them.

One of the typical criticisms about The Feminine Mystique is that it is grossly and offensively outdated in its references to and research about homosexuality, and yes- that absolutely stood out to me.  It's very uncomfortable to read.  Another criticism is that it focuses on the plight of middle to upper-class white women, brushing everyone else under the rug.  That's unfortunate, too- there is a heavy dose of privilege here, with housewives complaining about how they want more out of life while other, unmentioned women are living in dire circumstances.  But I justify Betty Friedan's perspective with a little "ends justify the means" philosophy: The Feminine Mystique led directly to 2nd wave feminism, which in turn resulted in changes to improve life for ALL women- not just desperate housewives.  

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations:  I wish I had read this in closer tandem with Perfect Madness, which is a sort of updated version.  If you're interested in the subject and you haven't read either, read them together and tell me what you think!

Warnings: Journalistic/statistical discussions about sex.  Nothing graphic.

Favorite excerpts: “In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination--tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it. A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she "adjust" to prejudice and discrimination”

What I'm reading nextCairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz