The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan and published in 1963, is one of the literary works that sparked the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States. Friedan was inspired to write her experiences after interviewing classmates from Smith College at their 15th anniversary reunion. After talking with many of them, she realized that they were unhappy and felt unfulfilled in their lives as housewives. This experience prompted her research into the phenomenon that was plaguing these suburban housewives.
Friedan begins her introduction by discussing "the problem that has no name." She uses this to generally refer to the unhappiness of women in the 1950s and 1960s. She illustrates the problem with stories of sever unhappy housewives from the United States who struggled with fulfillment despite living in comfort and having seemingly "perfect" families.
Chapter 1: Friedan discusses the trends in marriage and births that affected women in the 1950s. The average age of marriage was dropping and the birthrate was increasing and yet there was a continuing trend in the unhappiness of women. American culture insisted that women could find happiness in marriage and being a housewife. This American idea of a housewife directly contradicted the actual trends that were occurring. Friedan ends the chapter with an announcement--"We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'"
Chapter 2: Friedan states that media is a contributing factor to the "feminine mystique" and that men are the driving force behind the editorial decisions of women's magazines. The stories and articles therein were focuses on happy housewives or unhappy women who had chosen careers. This perpetuated the idea that women should feel naturally fulfilled in devoting their lives to the home. She points out that this was in direct contrast with magazines in the 1930s which featured independent and confident heroines who were involved in careers.
Chapter 3: One of the things that makes The Feminine Mystique so fascinating is Friedan's personal experiences as a housewife. She discusses her own decision to conform to societal expectations as a housewife when she abandoned a promising career in psychology so that she could raise children. She observes that other young women still struggle with that exact decision. Women drop out of school to marry at a young age because they are afraid that they will have waited too long to marry or become too educated that they would no longer be attractive to men. She points out that while men are encouraged to find their identity, a woman's destiny is defined by her biology. She argues that the crisis is women's need to mature and discover a human identity.
Chapter 4: Friedan discusses the fight that early American feminists fought against the assumption that that a woman's proper role was solely that of a wife and mother. She applauds them for their ability to secure important rights for women in education, career, and the right to vote.
Chapter 5: Friedan spends the majority of this chapter criticizing Sigmund Freud. His ideas were very influential in America during the 1950s and early 60s. Freud saw women as childlike and that their sole destiny was to be housewives. She also attacks Freud's concept of "penis envy" and calls it neurotic.
Chapter 6: Friedan criticizes functionalism in this chapter. Functionalism attempted to make the social sciences seem more credible by studying society as if it were part of a social body, similar to biology. Women were confined to education based on their biological roles as mothers and they were told that anything outsides of this role would upset the social balance. Friedan points out that this is unproven and advocates for dismissal of sex directed education.
Chapter 7: Friedan continues to discuss sex directed education and points to the trend in women's education in which schools focused on non-challenging classes that focused mostly on marriage and family. Educators felt that too much education would spoil women's femininity and make them incapable of sexual fulfillment. Friedan asserts that this change in education from the 1940s to the 1960s retarded the emotional development of young women because they were never forced to deal with adult challenges and identity crisis.
Chapter 8: Friedan discusses the influence of World War II and the Cold War on American Culture. They sought for the comforts of home and attempted to create an idealized home life in which the father was the sole breadwinner and the mother was the housewife. This was helped by the fact that the women who replaced the men in their jobs during the war were suddenly facing dismissal or discrimination when the men returned. Educators blamed mothers that were over-educated and career-focused for the maladjustment problems of World War II soldiers. Friedan sites evidence that later studies found that overbearing mothers, not career-focused ones, were those responsible for maladjusted children.
Chapter 9: Friedan addresses the advertising business that continues to perpetuate some of the problems women have. They encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals in the home and offer them specialized products that will help them do their jobs. However, they discourage women from having actual careers outside the home. If women were to have careers, they would not spend as much time and effort on housework, not buy as many household products, and therefore, cut into the profits of advertisers.
Chapter 10: Friedan spends this chapter detailing the interviews she had with several full-time housewives. They all admitted that although they are not happy in their work, they are extremely busy with it. Friedan feels that women unconsciously stretch the work they do in the home to fill all of the time that is available to them. They are subconsciously taught that if they ever complete all of their tasks, they will become unneeded.
Chapter 11: Friedan notes that since many women have been unable to find fulfillment in housework and child-rearing, they begin to seek fulfillment through sex. However, she also notes that sex cannot fulfill all of a person's needs and many women's attempts have led them to have affairs or drive away their husbands when they become obsessed with sex.
Chapter 12: Friedan introduces some of the side-effects of the "feminine mystique." One of them is that many children lose interest in life or emotional growth because of their mother's own lack of fulfillment. When the mother lacks a sense of self, she attempts to live vicariously through her children and the children lose their own sense of self as separate human beings.
Chapter 13: Friedan refers to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. She feels that women are trapped at the basic, physiological level because they are expected to find identity only through their sexual role as women. Women need more meaningful and fulfilling work just like men in order to achieve "self-actualization" which is the highest level in the hierarchy.
Chapter 14: Friedan uses the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique to show several case studies of women who have begun fighting against the feminine mystique. She advocates a new plan for women readers that involves not attempting to find total fulfillment in marriage and housewifery alone but seeking out meaningful work that exercises all of their mental capacities. She realizes that many women will experience conflict in this journey towards fulfillment and they will face fears and resistance. She offers examples of women who have overcome each conflict. She ends the text by promoting education and work that is meaningful as the ultimate method through which American women can combat the feminine mystique.