Introduction

Betty Friedan (1921–2006) is often credited with starting the second-wave feminist movement in the United States. She attended Smith College, where she majored in journalism, graduated in 1942, and married Carl Friedan five years later. Unfulfilled as a stay-at-home mother, Friedan questioned whether women could expect nothing more from life. She wrote to her fellow Smith classmates and asked them to fill out a survey that juxtaposed their education and career potential with their current satisfaction. She found a pattern in their answers: the “problem that has no name.” Wives and mothers quietly expressed dissatisfaction to Friedan but did not know how to discuss their feelings beyond the questionnaire because society told them the domestic role should make them happy. The Feminine Mystique shared these findings with the nation. Housewives read the book quietly in their kitchens after the dishes were done, the floor was mopped, and the laundry was folded, and a movement was born.


Source: Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), pp. 15 and 18.


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 twentieth 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?”

For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books, and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. 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. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents. . . .

In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”

Study Questions

  1. How does Betty Friedan describe the “problem that has no name”? According to Friedan, how did postwar society describe women’s fulfillment?
  2. Of the women’s rights activists in this collection, who would agree with Friedan and the fallacy of domestic fulfillment and satisfaction? Who would embrace the concept of domestic fulfillment?