A Modern Day Mystique

By Kim-Vi Sweetman

Elm Staff Writer

Two more years and it will have been fifty years since Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published, a book credited with starting the second wave of feminism in the United States. Happy 48th anniversary in the meantime. “The Feminine Mystique”, wherein Friedan uncovers and discusses the unfulfilling life of American housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, exploded into the market. The so-called “feminine mystique,” a term referring to women’s apparent fulfillment in being housewives, left many women in the 1950s and 1960s unsatisfied. Let’s take a look at how Friedan discovered the repercussions of the “feminine mystique.”

For context, “The Feminine Mystique” was first based off a survey done by Friedan where she asked her Smith College peers about their lives. Smith College, for anyone who doesn’t know, was and still is a women-only college in Massachusetts. (While Washington College is not a women’-only college, I believe we do have a fair amount of strong and opinionated young women here.) Friedan had intended to merely publish an article, not a whole book, on the “feminine mystique,” but no magazine would publish her on account that her article contradicted traditional thought.

Friedan found that the idea of women as the mother, the housewife, etc, was a rather empty role for the majority of women surveyed. Clearly, the Freudian idea that women cannot and should not ever amount to more than a womb and a pair of smiling lips is outdated. Some of the women surveyed even admitted to resorting to sex, having affairs, and living through their own children to try and find fulfillment for themselves. Friedan encouraged women to start seeking fulfillment by pursuing careers, continuing education, and ignoring the idea that women who have such ambitions are “neurotic.” Well, what about today?

We are starting to see and hear more about ambitious women now. Just look at the movies! Mulan and Belle of the “older” Disney generation are perfectly brave and ambitious young women who also show “feminine” traits. Look at one of the newest Disney princesses: Tiana, a hardworking girl with little who rises all the way to the top of her dream. We hear – although not always good news – about women in/running for office, from positions of mayors to presidents. Look at any occupation, and you’ll find women just as ambitious – if not more so – than their male counterparts.

So how do we define “feminine” today? Is it by the girl you see walking to Smith with a flowery, gauzy summer dress? Is it the girl with the so-short-as-to-be-scandalous skirt? Or, do we start to modernize the term, as Friedan modernized the idea of a woman in 1963? Consider the soldier woman: both a fighter and a mother. What about the doctor, who cares for her patients and family? Perhaps it lies in a combination of all of the above: ambition, compassion, outspokenness, silence, and more.

Society has come a long way. Of course, there will always be imperfections. In Asian cultures, for example, parents who were underprivileged in their childhood will push their own children to achieve everything. In a sense, they live through their own child as women in the 1950’s and 60’s did. We still have a ways to go. We always will. We’re only human after all.

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