Published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique was one of the most influential feminists books of its time. It raises many societal problems which were particularly relevant at the time, and many of which still pervade society even to this day (although to a lesser extent now than then). Sadly, though it was a progressive piece for its time, it has aged quite poorly in other regards, but that doesn’t mean that its valuable points should be disregarded.
The biggest point that Friedan tries to make with this book is that a woman cannot gain total fulfilment in life by dedicating her existence to housekeeping and raising children. Her argument is that because children inevitably grow up, build their own lives, and then move out, the women’s fulfilment is built upon something that is very temporary – once a child no longer ‘needs’ their mother for everything, she may well feel depressed because she has lost the ‘purpose’ she has imposed on herself and no longer has an independent existence of her own.
At the time, this was caused by a prevalent cultural belief that women’s natural role was in the home and she also illustrates that women’s issues actually worsened in the 50s and 60s, after improving somewhat in the 30s and 40s, as a part of the push to get men back into workplaces after women had taken a lot of jobs during the Second World War. I tend to think of social issues as a steady line of improvement, but it’s interesting to consider that there are ups and downs along the way.
She argues that it is important for women to maintain careers while being mothers, because that can help them to keep a sense of independent existence, and also give them something to get back to, once their children aren’t so dependent on them. Obviously, everyone’s needs are different, but as a general rule, I think that’s pretty sensible.
But here’s where she really dates herself: she goes so far as to argue that promiscuity, homosexuality, and autism all may be caused by children growing up without a strong female role model, because their mother lacks their own independent existences. It’s kind of insulting to quite a lot of people really, with a fundamental misunderstanding of how these things work, and then there’s also the fact that she says the lives of housewives are comparable to those of people held in Nazi concentration camps, which is a very poorly conceived comparison which falls apart really easily (in her defence, the introduction explains that she grew to regret this decision).
So, all in all, while there are many points that remain important to this day and have a progressive ethos to them, it’s also clear that this is a book of its time and several of the more unpleasant attitudes of the 1960s do rear their heads (although at least she is sympathetic to the civil rights movement), and it can generally be a very dry read sometimes. Still, it’s an interesting piece of history and her notion of the ‘feminine mystique’ itself (the idea that women should be able to find fulfilment in keeping a happy home) and the harm that it causes, will always be relevant.