(WOMENSENEWS)--"The Feminine Mystique" engaged its fans on both an intellectual and an emotional level. Somehow Betty Friedan managed to write a book that was more than 300 pages long, with chapters titled "The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud" and "The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead," and still evoke the kind of emotional response we now associate with chick flicks or confessional interviews on daytime talk shows.
Friedan took ideas and arguments that until then had been confined mainly to intellectual and political circles and she couched them in the language of the women's magazines she had begun writing for in the 1950s.
There already was a name for the overt barriers women faced in American society: sex discrimination. Contrary to some of the myths that have grown up around Friedan's book, plenty of people were already addressing this issue when "The Feminine Mystique" was published. But there was no name for the guilt, depression and sense of hopelessness many housewives felt.
"Sometimes, a woman would say, 'I feel empty somehow . . . incomplete,'" Friedan wrote. "Or she would say, 'I feel as if I don't exist.' Sometimes she blotted out the feeling with a tranquilizer. 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. Sometimes she went to a doctor with symptoms she could hardly describe: 'A tired feeling . . . I get so angry with the children it scares me . . . I feel like crying with no reason.'"
'Happiest Person on the Planet'
For more than 15 years, Friedan told her readers, America's psychiatrists, sociologists, women's magazines and television shows had portrayed the postwar housewife as the happiest person on the planet. To the extent that women believed this to accurately describe "everyone else," they felt alone and inadequate. So when a housewife failed to attain the blissful contentment that all her counterparts supposedly enjoyed, Friedan said she blamed herself--or perhaps her husband:
"If a woman had a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself . . . 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."
When American families settled down to their favorite television shows each evening, contented homemakers such as June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed reigned supreme. True, there was the hyperactive title character of "I Love Lucy," whose unrealistic fantasies about becoming an entertainer like her husband or developing a moneymaking business of her own provided an endless source of screwball comedy. But at the end of each episode Lucy always recognized that her efforts to escape being "just a housewife" had once more backfired and that her exasperated but loving husband had been right again.
Signs of Trouble
In 1962, the Saturday Evening Post was still assuring readers that few housewives even daydreamed about any life other than that of a full-time homemaker and that their occasional "blue" moods could easily be assuaged by a few words of praise for their cooking or their new hairdo.
Yet for those who cared to look, Friedan pointed out, signs of trouble had been clear for some time. Some doctors had begun to refer to women's persistent complaints of fatigue and depression as "the housewife's syndrome." Women's magazines were publishing articles with such titles as "Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped" or "The Mother Who Ran Away."
Social commentators, revisiting Freud's famous question "What does a woman want?" had fretted about why the American woman was "dissatisfied with a lot that women of other lands can only dream of," as one journalist mused in the March 7, 1960, issue of Newsweek.
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Stephanie Coontz is the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. The author of "Marriage: A History, The Way We Never Were" and "The Way We Really Are," she has written about marriage and family issues in many national publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, and Psychology Today.
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Stephanie Coontz's Web site:
A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s