‘The Feminine Mystique’ still significant after 50 years
John F. Kennedy had been president for two years and the country was in the midst of a Cold War. It was the height of the suburban era, nuclear families were the dominant ideal and suburban women were suffering silently.
“What we had was women, especially white, middle-class women, achieving, in larger numbers, higher levels of education, but nothing to use it for except their family,” said Sarah Beth Estes, PhD, the gender studies coordinator with the Department of Anthropology and Sociology.
Despite their education, women were told they should be wholly satisfied being what Friedan calls “the happy housewife heroine.” These limitations were “stultifying,” Estes said. “It was having very negative outcomes for women and their mental health,” she said.
In 1957, Friedan interviewed 200 women, all of whom had graduated from Smith with Friedan 15 years before. Friedan was a working mother, and from her personal experience, interviews with her classmates and additional research, she found that these women were not happy with the lives women’s magazines had sold them.
“The main point was that women need to do more than be limited to their family roles as mother, and that it was important to her selfhood,” Estes said. “It was too limiting; that wasn’t being a full person.”
Friedan’s ideas were not accepted by everyone, however. Many thought that the book was narrowly focused on middle-class, suburban women and that it “privileges women who are already the most privileged,” Estes said.
Another criticism was that the book falsely assured women that they could have equal rights, Estes said. “A lot of critics often will say ‘no, you can’t have it all, and you injured women by raising that notion.’”
Nonetheless, “The Feminine Mystique” had an “incredible influence,” Estes said. The book was a “touchstone” around which existing feminist organizations could gather and “gave voice to a lot of things that were already happening,” she said.
The book also gave power, strength and coherence to the 2nd wave of feminism, Estes said. The 1st wave of the women’s movement achieved suffrage for women. The 2nd wave was focused on achieving equal civil rights, Estes said.
After the movement, women gradually gained more legal protection, rights in the workplace and self-determination, she said. In addition, the sexual revolution and the proliferation of birth control gave women more freedom in choosing their family structure.
Although women are closer to equality than they were 50 years ago, “The Feminine Mystique” still has some bearing, Estes said. “It seems like it’s important because it’s still needed,” she said. She noted that education is a very equitable institution, so young women in college, sheltered from inequality, might not see the need for feminism.
There is still a gender pay gap, she said, and women are more likely than men to be forced to choose between work and family. In addition, the book shows that the wonderful, family-oriented time that is often valorized was not so wonderful for everyone, she said.
“It’s still really important for people to understand the baseline and what that meant at the time,” Estes said. “The work of feminism isn’t over.”