Feminine Mystique

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Supplemental Reading for US History 2
"From Rosie to Lucy"

Questions students must answer in a 500-word (minimum) essay:

1) Describe the post-WWII frustrations felt by women such as Betty Friedan.

2) During the era of “Rosie the Riveter”, what gains did women make in the workforce? How did these women feel about themselves and their contributions? What did society as a whole think?

3) What role did mass media play during the 1950s and 1960s in regard to supporting or undermining the “feminine mystique”?

4) Which television heroine -- Alice, Lucy, or Miss Brooks -- came the closest to TRULY overcoming the feminine mystique, and elaborate on that heroine’s situation and relationship to the men in her life. It was 1957. Betty Friedan was not just complaining; she was angry for herself and uncounted other women like her. For some time, she had sensed that discontent she felt as a suburban housewife and mother was not peculiar to her alone. Now she was certain, as she read the results of a questionnaire she had circulated to about 200 postwar graduates of Smith College. The women who answered were not frustrated simply because their educations had not properly prepared them for the lives they were leading. Rather, these women resented the wide disparity between the idealized image society held of them as housewives and mothers and the realities of their daily routines. True, most were materially well off. The majority had families, a house in the suburbs, and the amenities of an affluent society. But amid that good fortune they felt fragmented, almost as if they had no identity of their own. And it was not only college graduates. "I've tried everything women are supposed to do," one woman confessed to Friedan. "Hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn't leave you anything to think about — any feeling of who you are. ... I love the kids and Bob and my home. There's no problem you can even put a name to. But I'm desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and putter-on of pants and a bed maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?" A similar sense of incompleteness haunted Friedan. "I, like other women, thought there was something wrong with me because I didn't have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor," she recalled with some bitterness. This growing unease led her to raise some disturbing questions. Why, she wondered, had she chosen fifteen years earlier to give up a promising career in psychology for marriage and motherhood? What was it that kept women from using the rights and prerogatives that were theirs? What made them feel guilty for anything they did in their own right rather than as their husbands' wives or children's mothers? Women in the 1950s, it seemed to Friedan, were not behaving quite the way they had a decade earlier. During World War II the popular press extolled the virtues of women like "Rosie the Riveter" — those who left homes and families to join the workforce. Now, Rosie was no longer a heroine. The media lavished their praise on women who devoted themselves to family and home. In the closing scene of one 1957 ‘Redbook’ article the heroine, "Junior" (a "little freckle-faced brunette" who had chosen to give up her job), nurses her baby at two in the morning sighing, "I'm so glad, glad, glad I'm just a housewife." What had happened? "When did women decide to give up the world and go back home?" Friedan asked herself. Questions like those have engaged historians since the 1970s, but they were not ones housewives of the 1950s were encouraged to ask. For a red-blooded American to doubt something as sacred as the role of housewife and mother was to show symptoms of mental disorder rather than a skeptical or inquiring mind. Whatever the label attached to such feelings — neurosis, anxiety, or depression — most people assumed...
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