February 19, 2013 marked the 50-year anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan. Often called the catalyst of the second wave of feminism, The Feminine Mystique was written to explore the reason why so many housewives, who had everything society told them they needed, were still unhappy.
After being asked, in 1957, to survey her former Smith College classmates at their 15th anniversary reunion, Friedan decided to further research the reasoning behind the unhappiness that so many of the suburban housewives expressed to her. In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan explores topics varying from media’s portrayal of what women want to the current accepted psychology of Sigmund Freud. Freud viewed women to be in a permanent childlike state and destined to be either admired for their beauty in youth and valued as a housewife later in life. The idea of women’s roles to be in the home was further perpetuated by the end of World War II and the propagation of the ‘American Dream,’ where the man was the breadwinner of the family and the woman kept a spotless and idyllic household.
The final conclusion of Friedan’s work is that women should go against the ‘feminine mystique’ and seek fulfillment in meaningful work that challenges their minds instead of relying only on finding a husband, having children, and doing housework. The publication and popularity of The Feminine Mystique helped bring about the Second Wave of Feminism, a movement that accomplished greater reproductive rights for women, moved toward workplace equality, and helped battle violence against women through legislation.
Now, 50 years later, women are more likely to graduate from college than men, marry and have kids later, and make greater gains in the workplace and political sphere. The issues facing housewives in the 50’s and 60’s are often no longer the problems that which concern women today. Yet, women continue to earn less than men, make up only 20% of Congress, and the United States has yet to elect a woman for President.
In contrast to the world of The Feminine Mystique, today’s feminism includes not only white housewives, but also women of different races and classes as well as the LGBTQIA community. Feminism no longer means only equality for one group but all groups. The challenges facing feminists today are not limited to the US. There is inequality in every country in the world; violence against women is a rampant problem as well as oppression and discrimination. In this increasingly globalized society, a new wave of feminism would need to reach across the ocean to lift all types of women. Do we need a new Feminine Mystique, a new call to action? The progress women have made since the publication of The Feminine Mystique is impressive, but there is still much to be accomplished.
Women today owe Friedan much appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy but should take from her the courage to think critically about where we are and continue to pursue where we want to be.