The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

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Four stars, read August to October 2012.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to finally be able to say that I’ve read this book. I still think of 10 Things I Hate About You whenever I hear the title, and it makes me feel like I’m in on something now that I’ve read it. It’s definitely one I would recommend for so many reasons but, if nothing else, for the fact that it was such an absolutely earth-shattering book at the time it was originally published, and it had a truly enormous impact on history in the United States and around the world. People aren’t kidding when they say that even now, fifty years later, it’s still surprisingly relevant. Many parts of it have a definite historical feel to them, but there’s also an uncomfortable amount that could have been written this year.

One thing that stood out to me, and that’s mentioned in Anna Quindlen’s introduction at the beginning, is the magnitude of research that went into the writing of this book. Betty Friedan did so much research, and there had basically never been anything of the kind before this undertaking. She talked to American women. She read through the magazines and newspapers. She talked to professors, doctors, psychologists, advertising executives, magazine editors. She compiled the numbers, and she gave definition to the unknown Thing that had been plaguing American women for two decades already—“the problem that has no name.” Betty Friedan gave it a name, and in doing so, she lit the spotlight that would begin the feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies.

The first three chapters set the stage, for those of us who weren’t alive/aware in the 50s, describing “the problem that has no name.” Chapter eight, “The Sex-Directed Educators,” describes the kind of education girls were getting at the time, and how it differed from the educations they had gotten in the late 30s and early 40s. Chapter nine, “The Sexual Sell,” is probably the most fascinating chapter in the whole book—it contains the results of her analysis of, and interviews with, the advertising industry. You won’t believe how many of our cultural  ideas about women’s “place” and “role” stem from very specific marketing techniques designed to manipulate housewives into (1) retreating from the workplace so men could take their jobs after the war, and (2) just. buying. STUFF. Seriously—this chapter was shocking.

Chapter ten is called “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available,” and ends up describing a lot of how I feel about the subject. Chapter eleven contains some fairly appalling statements about homosexuality—how it’s caused by overbearing mothers, and all that kind of Freudesque nonsense—and I didn’t care much for it. I thought it was particularly silly that, after she spent all of chapter five discrediting Freud’s misogynistic and sex-obsessive theories, Friedan relies on them in discussing homosexuality. And chapter fourteen, “A New Life Plan for Women,” contains some really fantastic ideas for the future that I’m disappointed to say I don’t think have ever been put into practice.

Everyone should read this book at least once, if for no other reason than that it’s hugely historical and represents one of the biggest social changes our country has ever seen. This is one big “to-read” that feels really good to check off my list.

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