“The Feminine Mystique” 50 Years Later

By Amanda Reed, Communications Intern

This week marks the 50th anniversary of “The Feminine Mystique,” the groundbreaking book by one of NOW’s founders and its first president, Betty Friedan. Published in 1963, this book has been credited with sparking the start of the second-wave feminist movement. In it, Friedan questions the expectations women of her time faced in becoming housewives and choosing marriage and family over a continued education or career. Through her research, Friedan discovered that many of the stay-at-home wives and mothers who were her peers felt dissatisfied and unhappy adhering to the traditional and domestic roles pushed by society. Friedan called this lack of fulfillment “a problem that has no name.”

Wrote Friedan: “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question–‘Is this all?'”

Times have changed since the publication of “The Feminine Mystique.” However, Friedan’s words still resonate today. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now make up nearly half of the workforce. Nonetheless, they still deal with the challenge of balancing career and family. They continue to face the barriers of sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace, pay inequity and the pressure to be the “perfect” mother. Although men have taken on more parenting and household responsibilities, a large part of these tasks continue to fall on women.

Friedan believed “[t]he only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” Although marriage and motherhood can be rewarding and positive experiences, women’s accomplishments, like men’s, should not be limited to the home. Whether we are male or female, self-actualization is a need we all share. It is important for us all to find ourselves, to set our own goals and pursue work we are passionate about. In doing so, we should not feel obligated to cut marriage and family out of our lives–or vice-versa. In Friedan’s words, “[a] woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, ‘Who am I, and what do I want out of life?’ She mustn’t feel selfish or neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children.”

Listen to NOW President Terry O’Neill discuss “The Feminine Mystique” on The Diane Rehm Show (2/20/13).

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