Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Considered the introductory tome of the modern feminist movement, The Feminine Mystique was the prized work of Betty Friedan, who died in February 2006. Friedan helped spark the second wave of feminism with this book. Friedan began her career as a reporter writing on labor unions, which was a non-traditional career path for a woman in the 1930s, but Friedan was known as a quality writer with a very masculine assertiveness that made her successful in her profession.

After working as a labor reporter, Betty married Carl Friedan and began staying at home while freelance writing. Friedan wrote in her spare time while raising small children. She believed that she could keep up with her career and her family. While Friedan and her ideas often seem outdated or commonsensical today, she was quite the pioneer in her time for these ideas.

Friedan began to notice trends among her college classmates at a reunion. These women were highly educated, yet they were homemakers. And they were bored. Friedan was a very well-educated woman. Before one of her reunions, she became interested to know what educated women were doing with themselves. These women, Friedan believed, were capable of accomplishing much, but most of them devoted themselves to their families as expected. Friedan was curious about how these women felt about those choices. She went to her reunion armed with questionnaires and discovered that many of the women reported the same feelings. They were not happy with their lives and found the life of a homemaker a little boring for their tastes.

Friedan continued to compile information about this phenomenon and the romanticized notion of femininity in which women were expected to be at home, taking care of house and children, while men went out and worked. Most popular notions at the time painted this life as one of leisure and comfort, but the women saw it differently. Many of them disliked this life and saw that notion of idealized womanhood as a myth. Women were expected to do everything on the domestic front and to do it well. They had more labor-saving devices than ever, but these women only saw the added pressure to do even more in the course of a day.

Friedan exposed this myth, which she called the myth of femininity, and her book found more favor among women than she would have imagined. Though Friedan eventually severed ties with the National Organization of Women, which she founded, she did help ignite a generation of feminist women. The Feminine Mystique permitted many women to discuss their thoughts on the way women lived their lives and to express their disenchantment with life. These topics had previously been kept under wraps, ostensibly because women believed that discussing these ideas would make them seem ungrateful and unfeminine. The work is one of the hallmarks of modern feminism although it has met with much disagreement in recent years.

The Feminine Mystique is still read in college classrooms today. Although times have changed since its initial publication, the ideas it discusses are very much alive. Friedan and her colleagues have been criticized all around for their exclusion of all non-white, non-middle class, and non-educated women, but the reality is that Friedan sought to deal with these women when she started her research. She talked only to these women because they were the only ones with whom she was familiar.

These middle-class women have, for all of their other faults, been instrumental in many of the changes made to the position women hold in modern American society. The work Friedan did is important, if incomplete, and it helped to spark conversations about the place women hold and the expectations heaped upon them by a society accustomed to women who did as was expected.

Anyone who would like a basic introduction to the feminist ideologies in the modern wave of feminism would do well to begin by reading Friedan. While reading it with a discerning eye is helpful, reading to understand the time in which it was written will help as well. When Friedan died in early 2006, she left behind a legacy of activism and commitment to the cause of equality for women, and her book is a testament to her devotation.

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