A pioneer of the feminist movement, equal rights activist and acclaimed author, Betty Friedan is best known for her work The feminine mystic. Born in 1921 in Illinois, Betty completed her education at Berkley and went on to found the National Organization for Women in 1966. During her career as an activist, she wrote several books which included-The second stage, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, beyond gender and The fountain of age. Later, she wrote her autobiography titled life so far.
Betty and the second wave of feminism
Interestingly, Betty Friedan is considered the face of the second wave of the feminist movement. The movement primarily focused on critiquing the patriarchal institutions and cultural practices that governed society.
Second-wave feminism also brought attention to issues such as domestic violence, marital rape, rape crisis centers and women’s shelters, and also helped introduce changes in laws. on custody and divorce laws. The movement came to be seen as a stark departure from the quiet suburban life that American popular culture portrayed. Yet the roots of this new rebellion came from the frustrations of college-educated mothers whose disappointment drove their daughters to make substantial changes in their lives. Second-wave feminism shifted attention away from the cause of women’s oppression, the nature of gender as a whole, and the role the family played in determining their image as women.
The feminine mystic
The phrase “feminine mystic” was a term coined by Friedan to highlight and challenge the inherent assumption that women are fulfilled in their household chores, marriage, sex life, and children. It was believed that truly feminine women would not want to earn a living, work, study, or hold political opinions. Through his book, Friedan wanted to prove that women were dissatisfied but did not have the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction.
The feminine mystic was published in 1963 and brought to light the deep dissatisfaction experienced by women with their duties, obligations, and general way of life in American society. The book spans over 14 comprehensive chapters that identify, locate, and provide thought-provoking explanations of women’s experiences. Through her words, Friedan tries to galvanize her readers to join the feminist movement.
‘The problem that has no name‘, the first chapter of Friedan’s book, points out that ‘normatively feminine‘women were homemakers, nurturers and wives and these women are living the hollow American dream, playing the role of consumers in a capitalist America. She believed that women suffered from “housewife fatigue” in the 1960s, when they had children, took antidepressants and slept 10 hours a day to numb this hidden oppression.
In The feminine mysticFriedan says that ‘the highest value and the only commitment for the woman is the development of her femininity.’ He describes femininity as “mysterious”, “intuitive” and perhaps “superior” to the nature of men. According to Friedan, the only reason for the unhappy state of women is due to their refusal to want the same things as men. The book challenges the idea that women can only achieve their desires “through sexual passivity, male dominance, and nurturing maternal love.” The third chapter of the book deals with the crisis of women’s identity. The education that women received was reduced to a marital degree by popular culture at this time. The “wrong choice,” as Friedan calls it, satisfied men’s desire for a constant nurturing presence and solved the problem of women’s fear of the outside world. In their avoidance of becoming like their mothers, these women repeated the same steps.
Additionally, in Chapter 10 of her book, Friedan interviewed several full-time housewives, finding that while they were not particularly happy with their household chores, it kept them all extremely busy. She postulated that housewives unconsciously increased their chores to pass the time because female mystics taught women that it was their primary role and that if they ever performed their duties, their goal would be achieved. Throughout, Friedan gives her readers deep insight into why women felt the way they did and motivates them to question their social realities as women in a male-dominated world.
Friedan on Freud
One of the most notable parts of the book was Freidan’s commentary on Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy. A renowned psychologist, Freud developed the “penis envy theory” according to which women from childhood noticed their lack of a penis and they had long wanted to obtain something like a penis. Freud went on to say that a woman’s desire for a penis could drive her to pursue “an intellectual career”, which was an attempt to fulfill the repressed desire.
According to Friedan, Freud’s rhetoric permeated the physiology of literature to create a mysticism around women and their choices. She claims that Freudians use pseudo-science to underscore the idea that women could not achieve happiness through male pathways to success. His book says that ‘normal femininity‘ is achieved when a woman gives up all her own active goals to identify herself through the goals and activities of her husband or son.
Towards the end of the book, Friedan gives harsh advice to his female readers saying that every woman should recognize herself as an individual and not “like a mother with free time.“ A strong believer in feminism, Friedan argues that women should find meaning in their work and discourages them from pursuing the careers that society asks of them.
Critics of the book point out that Friedan focuses on the plight of the middle- and upper-class white housewife, almost entirely ignoring lower-class women and women of color. Nonetheless, Friedan, with his radical ideas and unwavering convictions, remains relevant to the 21st century and women around the world can learn a lot from reading his works even today.