The American Woman and the Feminine Mystique

The American Woman and the Feminine Mystique
The American Woman: All That She Can Be-- Original art by Norman Baugher
 

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique. But what is, or was this mystique? And how did it come to define the American woman. To answer this question, we have to go back to 1945 and find out what happened when the men came back from the war and Rosie went home.

Home (Not So) Sweet Home

When World War II ended, most women did what society expected of them. They went back home and tried to resume their traditionally assigned roles. But something was different. The genie wouldn't go back in the bottle. As one former Rosie put it, "I've tried everything women are supposed to do: hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, and being social with my neighbors. I can do all this--and I like it. But it doesn't leave you anything to think about, any feeling of who you are. I feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food, putter on of pants, and a bedmaker. Someone who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?"

The American Woman: Who Am I

The American Woman: Who Am I

Enter Betty Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown

Things had to change, but change doesn't just happen. Certain conditions have to be present : (1) a point of view around which to organize, (2) a positive response from an aggrieved group, and (3) a social atmosphere conducive to reform. These three elements came together for women in the 1960s. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, feminist leaders came forward to voice their concerns. One of the most articulate was Betty Friedan whose 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, set the stage for the feminist revival.

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan

According to Friedan,  women had been victimized by a concept to which she gave the seductive title, "the feminine mystique". This mystique defined female happiness as an involvement in the roles of wife and mother so total that over time, they had become helpless, lost souls confined to a "comfortable concentration camp where they were not free to use their minds". Advertisers and women's magazines manipulated women into believing they could achieve fulfillment by using the latest model vacuum cleaner, bleaching their clothes a purer white, or using instant cake mixes as an outlet for creativity. They should be happily content to live in the world of the bedroom and the kitchen surrounded by their husbands and babies. Some psychiatrists suggested that any woman who was not satisfied being a wife and mother was emotionally maladjusted. Friedan's book  told women that the only way to realize their potential as individuals and gain the personal identification essential to healthy family life was through meaningful careers.

Helen Gurley Brown, editor of the popular magazine Cosmopolitan, lent another powerful voice to the plight of women in the early 60s. "If you were single with no engagement ring," she said, " you might just as well go to the Grand Canyon and throw yourself in. If you were single and having sex, it was time to stick your head in the oven." In 1962, she published Sex and the Single Girl, in which she encouraged women to get jobs, enjoy sex, and not rush into marriage. The book sold millions of copies and was made into a hit movie.

Glorifying Sex and the Single Girl

Helen Gurley Brown, Glorifying Sex and the Single Girl

Movie Poster: Sex and the Single Girl

Movie Poster: Sex and the Single Girl

Women took action. They  joined women's rights organizations, the best known of which was NOW (National Organization for Women) founded by Ms. Friedan. They advocated for social change through legislation and the courts. They sought changes in divorce laws, abortion laws,  tax laws, and educational and employment practices. They set up a Women's Research Center to change the cultural concept of women. They encouraged teen-agers to join the movement. And in doing all this, they found that sisterhood was powerful.

This is not to say that women abandoned the kitchen and the bedroom. They just revised their thinking about them. In the kitchen, Betty Crocker stepped aside for Julia Child; and Betty's Box Brownie Mix was replaced by Julia's Gateau Victoire. 

Betty Crocker, 1960

Betty Crocker, 1960

The new woman in the kitchen, Julia Child

The new woman in the kitchen, Julia Child

Betty's Brownie Mix

Betty's Brownie Mix

 

Julia's Gateau Victoire

Julia's Gateau Victoire

The familiar figure in the bedroom was no longer mom, but the "Cosmo Girl". The times were definitely changing.

The Mother Image

The Mother Image

The New Woman in the Bedroom: the Cosmo Girl

The New Woman in the Bedroom: the Cosmo Girl

Getting on the Band Wagon

Politicians became more supportive of women's rights. Congress passed a number of bills guaranteeing the rights of women: Title VII to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbade any employer to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex; the Equal Pay Act; and changes to the abortion law. Serious consideration was given to an Equal Rights Amendment. But when both houses passed a massive day care program for all working mothers, President Nixon vetoed it saying, "Passage of the bill would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing. Enlightened public policy requires that it be strengthened, not weakened." Sound familiar?

Next:  The American Woman: Changing America

 

 

 

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  • Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking and interesting piece!

  • Your clear, concise, elegant writing should serve as a model for many other women (and men) who write on ChicagoNow.

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