'The Feminine Mystique': Betty Friedan's Book 'Started It All'

The book about women's fulfillment inspired women's liberation

Betty Friedan

Susan Wood/Getty Images

"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, published in 1963, is often seen as the beginning of the women’s liberation movement. It is the most famous of Betty Friedan’s works, and it made her a household name. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s would later say "The Feminine Mystique" was the book that “started it all.”

What Is the Mystique?

In" The Feminine Mystique," Friedan explores the unhappiness of mid-20th century women, describing women’s unhappiness as “the problem that has no name.” Women felt this sense of depression because they were forced to be subservient to men financially, mentally, physically, and intellectually. The feminine “mystique” was the idealized image to which women tried to conform despite their lack of fulfillment. 

"The Feminine Mystique" explains that in post-World War II United States life, women were encouraged to be wives, mothers, and housewives—and only wives, mothers, and housewives. This, Friedan says, was a failed social experiment. Relegating women to the “perfect” housewife or happy homemaker prevented much success and happiness, among the women and, consequently, their families. Friedan writes in the first pages of her book that housewives were asking themselves, “Is that all?”

Why Friedan Wrote the Book

Friedan was inspired to write "The Feminine Mystique" when she attended her Smith College 15-year reunion in the late 1950s. She surveyed her classmates and learned that none of them was happy with the idealized housewife role. However, when she tried to publish the results of her study, women’s magazines refused. She continued working on the problem, the result of her extensive research being "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963. 

In addition to case studies of 1950s women, the book observes that women in the 1930s often had education and careers. It wasn't as if it had never occurred to women over the years to seek personal fulfillment. However, the 1950s were a time of regression: the average age at which women married dropped, and fewer women went to college.

Post-war consumer culture spread the myth that fulfillment for women was found in the home, as a wife and mother. Friedan argues that women should develop themselves and their intellectual abilities and fulfill their potential rather than making a “choice” to be just a housewife.

Lasting Effects of 'The Feminine Mystique'

"The Feminine Mystique" became an international bestseller as it launched the second-wave feminist movement. It has sold more than a million copies and been translated into multiple languages. It is a key text in Women’s Studies and U.S. history classes.

For years, Friedan toured the United States speaking about "The Feminine Mystique" and introducing audiences to her groundbreaking work and to feminism. Women have repeatedly described how they felt when reading the book: They saw that they were not alone, and that they could aspire to something more than the life they were being encouraged or even forced to lead.

The idea Friedan expresses is that if women escaped the confines of “traditional” notions of femininity, they could then truly enjoy being women.

Quotes from 'The Feminine Mystique'

Here are some memorable passages from the book:

  • “Over and over again, stories in women's magazines insist that women can know fulfillment only at the moment of giving birth to a child. They deny the years when she can no longer look forward to giving birth, even if she repeats the act over and over again. In the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children's mother, her husband's wife.” 
  • “The 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.” 
  • “When one begins to think about it, America depends rather heavily on women's passive dependence, their femininity. Femininity, if one still wants to call it that, makes American women a target and a victim of the sexual sell.”
  • "The cadences of the Seneca Falls Declaration came straight from the Declaration of Independence: When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that they have hitherto occupied. . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident:that all men and women are created equal.”