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  • The Feminine Mystique at Fifty
  • Susan Levine (bio)

Looking back at The Feminine Mystique, one realizes both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to reach that equitable and just society Betty Friedan imagined in 1963. Her book articulated underlying discontents among American women—in particular, white middle-class women—although I will argue that her book also spoke to discontents and goals of a wider range of women as well. The book appeared at a moment when the country was poised on the verge of profound social transformation—in race relations as well as in changing gender roles. The social movement that emerged after 1963—what historians have labeled “second wave” feminism—drew on many of Friedan’s insights and created new consciousness among both men and women. At the same time, though, second-wave feminists were themselves limited by many of the assumptions and omissions the symposium speakers have so clearly outlined.

“The feminine mystique” and the “problem that had no name,” have become familiar tropes in our view of gender relations and women’s lives during the 1950s—so familiar, I would argue, that we need to look again at exactly what the problem was that Friedan articulated and what solutions she suggested. My goal in this comment is to examine the critiques the participants have proposed and then to look at what Friedan actually wrote, how some of the ideas played out among 1960s feminists, and, finally, what all this might mean for the possibilities of feminism today.

As Katherine Turk rightly points out, Friedan suggested that women needed a purpose in life in addition to their roles as wives and mothers. Such a purpose, Friedan argued, could be found in careers—work outside the home. Turk clearly lays out the limitations of this solution. For one thing, by the 1950s, despite the domestic rhetoric and popular images of the postwar period, large numbers of women were already working for wages outside the home. Further, for most working women, the job itself was not a source of [End Page 41] personal fulfillment (although it might well have been a source of autonomy and economic independence). Friedan, Turk argues, “draws a bright line” between ordinary wage work and fulfilling careers, thus leaving most working women and certainly most women of color out of the picture. Finally, Turk says, the idea of a career “flattens contemporary feminists’ textured response to the problem of wage labor.” She especially criticizes historians’ “narrow binary” between liberal feminists who prioritized moving women into male dominated jobs and generally “accepted the terms of those jobs as men had defined them,” and radical feminists whose critique of the work place was “bound up in their broader concerns with capitalism, the state, and hierarchy in all its forms.” I certainly agree that the division of 1960s feminism between “liberal” and “radical” leaves a lot of ground uncovered—and, as I will argue later, masks some fundamental contradictions within the feminist movement more generally.

Elizabeth Fraterrigo looks at the domestic side of the Feminine Mystique—the “myth of the ‘happy housewife.’” This cultural representation, she argues, shaped the limits of possibilities for women and, in Friedan’s rendition, “trapped” women in marriage and motherhood. It also entwined them in the “sexual sell”—that is, in the carefully constructed market for housewares, feminine products, appliances, and cake mixes. In other words, the housewife became a critical player in the consumer market and thus a central factor in American capitalism. Friedan’s critique of the “happy housewife,” Fraterrigo says, recognized the power of cultural representations and set the stage for the second-wave (especially nows) critique of images as a major factor in the oppression of women. Using Friedan’s insight about the power of images, one of feminism’s core goals—whether radical or liberal—was to transform representations of women, bringing more diverse, positive images to young girls and women. But, of course, as Fraterrigo notes, new images did not necessarily bring acceptance of broader feminist goals. That is, women could be as exploitative as men when it came to creating profitable, sexy pictures. Despite Friedan’s insights about...


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pp. 41-46
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