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The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan

Betty Naomi Friedan was a feminist author and lecturer. She was born February 4 1921 and died February 4 2006.

June 2006

This is an edited excerpt from The Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963, reproduced
by permission of W. W. Norton & Company.

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American
women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women
suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled
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?"


Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that
they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. They were taught
to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists
or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists
fought for. Some women, in their 40s and 50s, still remembered painfully giving up those
dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand
expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity. All they had to
do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.


Fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949—the
housewife-mother. As swiftly as in a dream, the image of the American woman as a changing,
growing individual in a changing world was shattered. Her solo flight to find her own
identity was forgotten in the rush for the security of togetherness. Her world shrank to
the cozy walls of home.


In the 15 years after the second world war, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became
the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Words like
"emancipation" and "career" sounded strange and embarrassing; no one had used them for
years. When a Frenchwoman named Simone de Beauvoir wrote a book called The Second
Sex, an American critic commented that she obviously "didn't know what life was all about,"
and besides, she was talking about French women. The "woman problem" in America no
longer existed.


If a woman had a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, she knew that something must be wrong
with her marriage, or with herself. Other women were satisfied with their lives, she thought. What
kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?
She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women
shared it. If she tried to tell her husband, he didn't understand what she was talking about. She did
not really understand it herself.


No other road to fulfillment was offered to American women in the middle of the 20th
century. Most adjusted to their role and suffered or ignored the problem that has no name. It
can be less painful for a woman not to hear the strange, dissatisfied voice stirring within her.
Gradually I came to realize that the problem that has no name was shared by countless
women in America. Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women
used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say "I feel empty somehow…
incomplete." Or she would say, "I feel as if I don't exist." Sometimes she blotted out the feeling
with a tranquillizer. Sometimes she thought the problem was with her husband or her children,
or that what she really needed was to redecorate her house or move to a better neighborhood, or
have an affair, or another baby.


If I am right, this problem stirring in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter
of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important
than anyone recognizes. It may well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture. We can no
longer ignore that voice within women that says:"I want something more than my husband and my
children and my home."


The problem that has no name—which is simply the fact that American women are kept
from growing to their full human capacities—is taking a far greater toll on the physical and
mental health of our country than any known disease. If we continue to produce millions
of young mothers who stop their growth and education short of identity, without a strong core
of human values to pass on to their children, we are committing, quite simply, genocide, starting
with the mass burial of American women and ending with the progressive dehumanization of
their sons and daughters. These problems cannot be solved by medicine or even by psychotherapy.


A woman today who has no goal, no purpose, no ambition patterning her days into the future,
making her stretch and grow beyond that small score of years in which her body can fill its
biological function, is committing a kind of suicide. The feminine mystique has succeeded
in burying millions of American women alive. There is no way for these women to break out
of their comfortable concentration camps except by finally putting forth an effort—that human
effort which reaches beyond biology, beyond the narrow walls of the home, to help shape
the future. We need a drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity that will permit
women to reach maturity, identity, completeness of self, without conflict with sexual fulfillment.


Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?

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