Elizabeth's Reviews > The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
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Jan 04, 2010

really liked it
Read in December, 2009

I'll be writing a fuller review for The Practical Feminist, of course.

Some parts of this book are showing their age. Friedan handily deconstructs the sexism of Freudian psychology but gives embarrassing credence to Freud's hypotheses of homosexuality--views that today seem as dated as the 1950s ad-speak she quotes.

But ohhh, that ad-speak. And ohhh, how she exposes the bland greed that keeps society and individuals from evolving as they might. It's easy to forget that second-wave feminism, in this initial salvo, was a seriously anticonsumerist movement. As Friedan points out, advertisers of the 1950s knew that, with women making the majority of household purchases, it would be profitable to keep women in a relatively docile, infantile state of vague unease. Can we say with any certainty that the American public has grown out of this state of adolescence? Now that the marketing world has co-opted the messages of feminism, contemporary women--who hear "You go, girl" messages selling everything from antibacterial spray to diet drinks to antidepressants--would do well to remember this anticonsumerism.

Friedan also makes an uncomfortable point, glossed over by subsequent feminists from Steinem to Faludi: women must accept the responsibility for their own disenfranchisement. Passivity is the easier role, and plenty of women willingly chose it--and continue to choose it. That's vital, and I don't know why it hasn't quite caught on. I have a guess or two. One is that the marketing messages haven't exactly let up since The Feminine Mystique was published, and it's still very easy to choose passivity. Another is that Gloria Steinem became the public face of feminism (as Camille Paglia would have it, this was because Steinem was sexier and more photogenic than Friedan), and Steinem's feminism was less nuanced, more focused on the woman-as-eternal-victim-of-historical-forces view. Now, the problem with the woman-as-eternal-victim school of feminism is the same as the consumerist problem: it puts the woman in a passive role. If anything, victimhood is even more pernicious than consumerism, because it posits an attractive, romantic passivity. The world in which a young woman is tragically oppressed and traumatized, surrounded by leering would-be rapists, is much more dramatic and appealing than the one in which she must speak up and tell her employer she deserves a raise. Friedan is clear-eyed enough to call the victim world a fantasy. Would that her followers had done the same.
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