The Feminine Mystique Revisited

“Betty Friedan became concerned with the problem of female identity in the 1950’s. This led her to conclusions that she later published in the surprising 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique. In Friedan’s view, cultural expectations that normed female roles of marriage, mothering, and homemaking, roles that she collectively termed “the feminine mystique,” ate away at a woman’s sense of self. “It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women,” she wrote. “There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I’ without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive.”

What to make of this? Such a pathologization of stay-at-home mothers would make most women bristle today, as would Friedan’s labeling of their homes as “comfortable concentration camps.” And today’s reader rightly winces at the pervasive classism of the book, in which the paradigmatic (white) woman lives in a posh, mid-century-modern house, and the paradigmatic (white) man is an executive escaping into the city.”