March 21, 2013
The Changing Face of Feminism
“Each suburban wife struggles 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?” ― Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique.” The passage of time has not diminished the significance of the book in terms of its influence on people’s concept of woman and her role in society. Through this book’s insightful views on the realities faced by American women, the author has solidified her position as a leading figure in the history of feminism. Friedan has deeply influenced many American women since the first publication of her book, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. It is thus interesting to note that the observations of the author have penetrated barriers of personal and public spaces. Friedan’s personal experience and those of other young American women she interviewed have become the basis of her inspiring views on the nature of woman. Through the lens of gender criticism, the next sections present how Friedan’s views about the feminine mystique continue to be relevant in today’s society. In the book, Friedan pierces through the feminine mystique that has clothed American women with the traditional outlook of women as passive creatures. They are relegated to the role of wife and mother. Friedan offers an interesting comparison of American women in the 1930s and in the 1960s. Through the volumes of magazines and articles she pored over, Friedan discovers a sharp contrast between the two groups of women. In the 1930s, the magazine stories feature a heroine that may be younger compared to the heroine of the 1960s stories. Yet, Friedan notes that the heroine of the 1930s is a New Woman with a determined spirit to create a life of her own outside the home. The 1930s heroine has an aura about her “of becoming, of moving into the future that was going to be different from the past” (Friedan 38). The next two decades indicate a shift in focus for women’s magazines. The heroine of the stories has become much younger not only in looks but also in their childlike dependency on a man. Friedan observes that the latter heroine has no vision of the future except to have a baby. She is forever young because her “own image ends in childbirth” (44). Through her careful study of the women’s magazines within a forty-year period, the author effectively establishes the differing attitudes of women towards themselves. On the one hand, the modern reader clearly sees the vibrant spirit of the New Woman of the 1930s. On the other, the happy housewife of the 1960s busies herself with the children and household chores. Friedan has successfully placed these two images of woman at the foreground of the reader’s consciousness. It is as if the New Woman and the happy housewife have leaped from the magazine pages and become two separate images that the reader can identify distinctly. Based on the two images of woman, Friedan launches a discussion on the so-called feminine mystique that has influenced the course of her life and those of her generation. The author directly states: The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says the greatest mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in...