The Problem That Has No Name

A Review of The Feminine Mystique
by Betty Friedan

Author Biography

Betty Naomi Goldstein Friedan was born on February 4, 1921 in Illinois. She went to Smith College and worked on the school newspaper. After her graduation, Friedan attended the University of California, Berkeley, while doing undergraduate work in psychology. Friedan had been a stay-at-home mom so she knew how other women felt. Friedan is also credited for writing three other books. Betty Friedan passed away on February 2, 2006.

The time is eight a.m. The year is 2006. Men and women alike are all awake and ready to go to work. Yes, it may seem that going to work everyday is monotonous, but for women in the sixties, there was no such thing as work outside the home. The only job for women was to take care of the children and run the household. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was exactly what women needed to hear. It asked all the questions women were thinking and answered them. “She was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—Is this all?”1 In the sixties, women around the nation questioned whether the life they were living was all that they had. They dreamt of a better life—a life that would take them further than where they were at the time.

The book starts off with a problem—a problem that has no name. Women were told that they were inferior to men. Being a woman meant doing chores and caring for the family. The first three chapters explain the problems that women faced. Everyday life was a routine and nothing special was going on. The main issue this book deals with is a woman’s identity. The world told women to be someone and act a certain way. Women never had the chance to go out and explore to find out who they really were. “All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”2 Little girls grew up knowing what they were going to be when they grew up. “…A little girl said: When I grow up, I’m going to be a doctor, and her mother would correct her: No dear, you’re a girl. You’re going to be a wife and mother, like mummy.”3 Women were not given the chance to dream or to even think for themselves. It was as if their futures were over because they already knew what lay ahead for them.

The chapters following show that women during this era were influenced by many people. One of the most prominent influences of the time was Sigmund Freud. “The feminine mystique derived its power from Freudian thought.”4 Freud was an observer; he observed the world around him and recorded the problems he saw. “He was creating a new framework for our culture…”5 He may have changed women’s perspectives but the one person that kept most women grounded was Margaret Mead. “She was the symbol of the women thinker[s] in America.”6 Mead believed that both men and women were the same. She did not think that there was any sexual difference between man and woman except in procreation. Two very different people with two very different concepts. Freud and Mead were the cornerstones of influence in the feminine mystique.

Following the discussion on Freud and Mead, the book begins to explain the daily life of a housewife. Being a mother in the sixties was busy work only when the child is young. As the child grew, these mothers felt empty as if their lives were over. This being the case, what was left for them to do except reproduce? Then again, many women could not just reproduce. Having too many children would become a difficult problem in the future. For a young woman who married so young, “the only way the young housewife was supposed to express herself, and not feel guilty about it, was in buying products for the home and family.”7 The Feminine Mystique views women as having more sexual desires than men. As their desires grew stronger, the men started to wane in their desires. While it progressed, it literally forced the women to have affairs in order to keep something in their lives real. Women in the sixties were often stuck at home with nothing to do. They wanted get out and do more for themselves and others.

Towards the end of the book, Friedan writes in detail about the specifics of being a woman in the sixties. When writing this book, she interviewed many women in order to get her facts and she cited those interviews in the final chapters of her book. Friedan drew many observations and connected the facts to what she heard and saw. Friedan noticed all the housewives had the same difficulties and tribulations. “Only by such a personal commitment to the future can American women break out of the housewife trap and truly find fulfillment as wives and mothers.”8 These women were missing something in their lives and they could not find the missing link if they were trapped in the house all day. The novelist expresses herself at the end of her novel by answering many of the questions she stated earlier. She also concludes by giving ideas of how women can change themselves and make themselves feel happier and ultimately fulfilled.

When Betty Friedan’s book first came out, it was the center for criticism. This book was also the pivotal voice in the women’s liberation movement. Friedan’s main purpose was to get women to realize their true potentials. Friedan was the voice of all the women across America and she believed that not all women had to be housewives. Women around the nation were thinking what Friedan had written in her book. They wanted to find jobs and to make names for themselves. Women were sick and tired of being limited to just taking care of the kids and doing housework. Friedan and the women across America had the same belief in that women should have the right to be a career woman as well as a housewife and mother. She had interviewed so many women through the making of this book that she truly understood and knew what they had gone through. After all, Betty Friedan was once a woman trapped in the feminine mystique. She believed that “if women do not put forth, finally, that effort to become all that they have it in them to become, they will forfeit their own humanity.”9 Friedan wrote what she felt needed to be written and her words became the answers to the long time sufferers of the mystique.

Many people believe that being a housewife is the easiest job in the world. In reality, it is probably the hardest. Women have to balance everything and they are always stressed about what to do and how to provide for the children. Being a housewife is definitely not the easiest job in the world. Statistics show that a woman who has a part time job is able to finish the housework and handle the children in a certain amount of hours. On the other hand, a woman who does not have a part time job takes all day to do everything a career woman does in half the time. Friedan’s answer to why the work efforts are so different is because a career woman has a plan and knows what needs to be done and conquers it. “The first step in that plan is to see housework for what it is—not a career, but something that must be done as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”10 The writer wants every woman to realize that her life isn’t over. Being a housewife doesn’t exclude women from fulfilling their dreams. Men are not the only people in the world who are capable of handling a job. Women were strong and determined to be all that they could be in a world that wouldn’t let women do anything else but be a housewife.

Friedan did not just wake up one day realizing that she was going to write a book about how women were sucked into the feminine mystique. Like writers everywhere, Friedan did her homework and researched about this mystique. Just as it has influenced authors of different times and places, historiography played a large role in Friedan’s writing of the book. From a historian’s perspective, Betty Friedan would be labeled as a liberal person. Friedan recognized that there were some weaknesses in the sixties and tried to offer suggestions to make it better. The Feminine Mystique is a book made from observations. Back in the sixties, women were housewives and nothing more. They spent their day around the house doing chores. Friedan wrote this book trying to get women out of their shells and into the world. In the sixties, women were discouraged from having jobs. Friedan, on the other hand, wanted women to have careers. Noticing how mothers everywhere kept on saying how dull, boring, and dissatisfying their lives were, she decided to do something about it. “Occupation: Housewife,” was what women mainly wrote on checks and other applications.11 Women no longer wanted to be seen as just a housewife and nothing more.

After the book was published, it became an instant bestseller. The Feminine Mystique was like a pinch of reality women needed to actually believe that they were made to be more than just a wife and mother. The book first came out 43 years ago and impacted society [significantly]. Today, just about every mother and wife is also a career woman. There are many who are still housewives, but they don’t feel trapped like the women from the sixties. They know that if they wanted to get a job, they could do it. Betty Friedan’s book led a powerful movement for women.

The Feminine Mystique was a book that had numerous mixed reviews. There are many journalists who either love the book or hate it. Many reporters applauded Friedan for her strength to put out a book like The Feminine Mystique. Others degraded her and wondered what was going on in her head. Charlotte Armstrong from the LA Times writes “here is a book by an angry woman.”12 Armstrong believes that there are chapters in the book that deserve praise. Sylvia Fleis Fava from The New York Times says, “The value position makes this an important book, worthy of the wide reading and discussion it is already gaining.”13 Fava writes how Friedan is giving readers different opinions and that there are many different ways of interpreting the book. Her only concern is that “the approach taken in the book is…so heavily psychological.”14 Overall, Fava really did enjoy reading a book that talked about women and their problems in life and society. Despite their different perspectives, Armstrong and Fava both liked the book one way or another.

For first time readers, this book will really open up their eyes and help them see women through a different light. On behalf of the people who have never lived in the sixties and have never known what a struggle it was for women, this book helps to establish an image. The Feminine Mystique is a book that grabs viewers for the most part. It makes readers think about the questions being asked. It allows the reader to compare and contrast how time has changed and how this book has made an impact on a nation. A positive aspect of this book is that it permits women who read it to relate to it and to know that there are others out there who are just like them. This is a book that has been fully researched to the point where Friedan even included different excerpts. The excerpts included vary as to where Friedan received the information. These little pieces of information give the reader facts and not just opinions from the author. Overall, many of the reviewers who have read the book would recommend The Feminine Mystique to everyone.

From an author’s view point, the sixties and early seventies were a time that rocked the world. There were so many interesting and controversial things going on that would make a writer go wild. The sixties was known as an era of complex inter-related cultural and political events. It was also known as the Swinging Sixties. In this era there was a war going on—the Vietnam War. War meant that men had to leave their homes to defend their country. It also meant more women in the work field trying to earn money for their families. With all this going on, Friedan saw what a difference women made and how much happier they felt when they were outside of their homes. It could be said that a war that forced women to work led to women feeling a little bit fulfilled. Before, women were not even allowed to think of working outside the home. With society changing, women were given the chance to do something that would change the rest of their lives.

The sixties was an era of turbulent rises. There was the rise of the feminist movement, the African-American movement, and the counterculture movement. American society had changed through the sixties because of the different trends. One day people would be supporting women and the next they wanted the new fashion trend or the latest music. The sixties and early seventies were not an easy decade to live in. There was also the Civil Rights Movement in the early sixties, which impacted the entire country. Before the sixties, there was no such thing as a woman handling a part time job. Motherhood and being a housewife were their number one jobs. After the book was published, many women were already living by the book and making “a new life plan.”15 If this book had not been published or put out in bookstores, many women would be suffering from the problem that has no name. Women would not be out working and making money because men technically “brought home the bacon.” The sixties as well as The Feminine Mystique have made a massive difference to the American society.

The Feminine Mystique is a book that has raised eyebrows for the past 40 years. Betty Friedan wrote a historic novel without even knowing it. By comparing the sixties to present time, one can tell how much change has occurred. What Friedan wanted women everywhere to achieve has been achieved. Women are no longer cooped inside a house because they have to be. Many women are working everyday and enjoying life. Women are not sad and frustrated with their lives; they are content. Everyone who has already read this book knows how much this book has influenced people. Men and women now view the world through a totally new perspective. The Feminine Mystique has touched the lives of people everywhere and Betty Friedan has opened their hearts and eyes.

review by Kristine Chang

  1. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton & Company, Inc., 1963, 15.
  2. Friedan, Betty 16.
  3. Friedan, Betty 235.
  4. Friedan, Betty 103.
  5. Friedan, Betty 105.
  6. Friedan, Betty 135.
  7. Friedan, Betty 222.
  8. Friedan, Betty 337.
  9. Friedan, Betty 336.
  10. Friedan, Betty 342.
  11. Friedan, Betty 315.
  12. Armstrong, Charlotte. LA Times Book Reviews 1963.
  13. Fava, Sylvia Fleis. New York Times Book Reviews 1963.
  14. Fava, Sylvia Fleis. New York Times Book Reviews 1963.
  15. Friedan, Betty 338.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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