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Study Notes

Betty Friedan (1921−2006)

Level:
A-Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 2 Jun 2020

Betty Friedan is widely considered to be the mother of women’s liberation, a leading exponent within liberal feminism and the figure who instigated the second-wave of the feminist movement.

Her most important contribution towards the ideology of feminism is ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in which she sought to highlight the manifold issues facing the American housewife. Friedan exposed the stifling boundaries placed upon women (particularly mothers and housewives) and identified the multiple frustrations of those who felt trapped by the confines of social expectations.

During her interviews with American women, Friedan found that very few of them had ever seen a positive female role-model who worked outside of the home whilst having a family. She also found that housewives were ‘tied to the kitchen sink’ due to the constraints of family life. Friedan concludes that women were afraid to ask themselves the devastating question – “is this all?” Her research identified what she memorably called “the problem with no name,” a tangible sense of dissatisfaction that lay buried deep within the minds of the American housewife. Friedan claimed that women were prevented from fulfilling their potential in life (especially in the public realm) due to the confines of this cultural myth. In doing so, she pointed out in graphic language that “the shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique.”

As her investigation progressed, Friedan came to identify the importance of advertising in the creation of the feminine mystique. Ultimately, the feminine mystique was an illusion maintained by the male-dominated advertising industry. According to Friedman; “the feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfilment of their own femininity.” Women were therefore sold a lifestyle that centred around marriage, the home, the family and their associated material goods. However, many women wanted more from life than that on offer to them.

Friedan believed passionately in the emancipation of women from the confines of a patriarchal society. During a time of conservative social mores, Friedan argued that women were as capable as men in terms of performing any type of work or career path. She was also an advocate of raising consciousness and lobbied in favour of legislative reform to address gender inequality. Friedan’s approach to the problems facing women typify the liberal feminist position on the path towards female emancipation. Whilst the political process is dominated by men, Friedan and others believe there is sufficient scope within its boundaries for women to advance the feminist position.

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