Some of the books featured in today’s university reading lists can leave students pondering the relevance of long ago breakthrough revelations. The feminist movement broke through the gender boundaries in the 1960s with some of the original equality fighters pointing to the complacency among subsequent generations of young women. Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ first hit the bookstores and readers’ consciences in 1963, yet it still remains as relevant as ever. The tumultuous social storms that blew across campuses have long since died down, but this work continues to earn its spot as a significant agitator amidst the calm.
After World War Two, women saw their roles as contributors to society narrowed down to the choices of wife and mother. Education was a means to find a proper, upwardly mobile husband who would take care of matters outside of the house. There was no need for women to burden themselves with critical or analytical thinking. Friedan set out to interview her fellow female Smith College graduates from the class of ’42. What she discovered is that many of these women, serving as a microcosm for American society, displayed desperation with their status as women without any purpose beyond housecleaning.
Friedan combined the information gleaned from these women and that of psychological experts to describe the crisis point in society. Dubbed ‘the problem that has no name,’ Friedan examined the many sources for this frustration and why it perpetuated itself in women’s anxieties. Once promising women who dreamed of attaining educations or achieving personal goals, were reminded of their natural duties that awaited them. If a woman wanted to use her education to be a better wife that was fine, but there was no way any respectable woman would dare to strike out on her own or set her terms in a relationship or in society.
Friedan’s book might have scared those who preferred the status quo, but The Feminine Mystique shook the foundations of social constructs. Women were not just beings who could be little more than ornamental finery in a marriage. As women tried to force themselves into the expected and accepted social roles, they experienced increasing dissatisfaction with their lives. Yet they dared not speak about how they felt to any other women for fear of being seen as incapable or incompetent. Worse yet was being seen as a failure in marriage or motherhood; failure as a woman.
At the time, Friedan’s message was a much needed wake up call to the women who were suffering in great numbers yet suffering alone. Behind the white picket fences and walk-down-the-aisle dreams were real people who feared the fallout from voicing their concerns and frustrations. This book became the life-line that women could grab onto as a way to understand that what they were going through was not just all in their heads. They hardly needed yet another tranquilizer or new dress to smooth over their problems; they needed real answers to their ‘what is wrong with me’ questions. Society may not have been ready to hear the information, but then rarely are the most critical messages well received upon first delivery.
Fast forward to over 40 years later, and this book still proves its relevance. Latest figures indicate that women now outnumber men in undergraduate university programs; over 50% of the student body. Programs such as law are showing growing numbers of female graduates. While there are still gains to be made in the so-called traditional male subjects including sciences, technology, and math; clearly young women are no longer obtaining ‘MRS.’ degrees. They are seeking educations that will ensure solid futures in the workplace. Understanding why women continue to be outnumbered in some programs like science points to early primary grades and the belief that girls just do not like math or science. Outdated ideas like these are by-products of those long-ago conducted interviews with Friedan’s classmates.
That is where The Feminine Mystique remains important to today’s generations. As women continue to earn less compared to their male counterparts, there is still much work to be done. The roots of modern day achievements date back to another era, yet despite the many gains and incredible advancements, women today still face the challenges of trying to combine successful careers with the still vaunted roles as women and mothers. Friedan’s book reminds us that remnants of ‘the problem with no name’ continue to permeate many aspects of social and gender constructs several decades later.
Reading The Feminine Mystique today might seem to be taking a step backwards in time when it was necessary to deliver a message that has long since become as dated as bee-hive hairdos. Yet this book instructs readers that there are still prevailing attitudes that touch on and affect women’s choices. Women have made immense progress over the last few decades but the glass ceiling remains stubbornly shatterproof for the time being. The Feminine Mystique is the hammer that Friedan has left as her legacy for generations to come.
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2001, 1997, 1991, 1974, 1963.
This article originally appeared on another site, and is the original creation of the BellaOnline Menopause site Editor. This book was review purely based on the editor's interests and purchasing habits. At no time was any compensation received, nor was the editor approached by the publisher.