What Is the Feminine Mystique?

The Idea Behind Betty Friedan's Bestselling Book

Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan.

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The Feminine Mystique is remembered as the book that “started” the women's movement and 1960s feminism in the United States. But what is the definition of the feminine mystique? What did Betty Friedan describe and analyze in her 1963 bestseller?

Famous, or Famously Misunderstood?

Even people who have not read The Feminine Mystique can often identify it as a book that drew attention to the massive unhappiness of women trying to fit a media-idealized “happy suburban housewife” image. The book examined the role of women’s magazines, Freudian psychology, and educational institutions in limiting women’s life options. Betty Friedan drew back the curtain on society’s pursuit of the pervasive mystique. But exactly what did she expose?

Definition of the Feminine Mystique

The feminine mystique is the false notion that a woman’s “role” in society is to be a wife, mother, and housewife - nothing else. The mystique is an artificial idea of femininity that says having a career and/or fulfilling one’s individual potential somehow go against women's pre-ordained role. The mystique is the constant barrage of homemaker-nurturer-mother images that esteem the virtue of keeping house and raising children as essential womanhood while criticizing the “masculinity” of women who want to do other things, whether along with or instead of the mystique-approved duties. 

In Betty Friedan's Words

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity,” Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique’s second chapter, “The Happy Housewife Heroine.”   

It says that the great 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 the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. (The Feminine Mystique, New York: W.W. Norton 2001 paperback edition, pp. 91-92)

One major problem was that the mystique told women it was something new. Instead, as Betty Friedan wrote in 1963, “the new image this mystique gives to American women is the old image: ‘Occupation: housewife.’” (p. 92)

Inventing an Old-Fashioned Idea

The new mystique made being a housewife-mother the ultimate goal, rather than recognizing that women (and men) could be freed by modern appliances and technology from many of the domestic labors of earlier centuries. Women of previous generations may have had no choice but to spend more time cooking, cleaning, washing and bearing children. Now, in mid-20th century U.S. life, instead of allowing women to do something else, the mystique stepped in and made this image:

“into a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity.” (p. 92)

Rejecting the Mystique

Betty Friedan ably dissected the messages of women’s magazines and their emphasis on buying more household products, a self-fulfilling prophecy designed to keep women in the fabricated role. She also analyzed Freudian analysis and the ways women were blamed for their own unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. The prevailing narrative told them they simply weren’t living up to the mystique’s standards. 

The Feminine Mystique awakened many readers to the realization that the upper-middle-class-suburban-homemaker-mother image being spread across the land was a false idea that hurt women, families, and society. The mystique denied everyone the benefits of a world in which all people could work to their fullest potential.

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Napikoski, Linda. "What Is the Feminine Mystique?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-feminine-mystique-3528925. Napikoski, Linda. (2021, February 16). What Is the Feminine Mystique? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-feminine-mystique-3528925 Napikoski, Linda. "What Is the Feminine Mystique?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-feminine-mystique-3528925 (accessed March 25, 2023).