Many white, middle-class housewives of the 1950s and 1960s thought they were crazy. To outsiders, they appeared to have it all. They had husbands, children, and homes in the suburbs. American society at that time considered their lives perfect. But something was missing for many of these women; they just weren’t happy with their lives. The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and changed the lives of numerous people. The book provided a shift in the readers’ perception of their lives. It finally became clear to them that there wasn’t anything wrong or abnormal with what they were feeling; the problem was with the societal view of a “woman’s place.” This change in perception is one of the reasons The Feminine Mystique is an important historical text.
The War Against “Singleness”
After World War II there was a “war against singleness…less than 10 percent of the public believed an unmarried person could be happy.” Single women were no longer hired as teachers because society “now wanted marriage to be mandatory” so children would not be “damaged psychologically by…spinster teacher[s].” Judy McKibben, a child in the 1950s, remembers “All of my teachers at that time were married women. It was unusual to have an unmarried teacher.”
For white, married, middle-class women, the expectation was that they stay home to take care of the children and their homes in the 1950s. Judy McKibben, who grew up in a lower-middle-class household in Portsmouth, Virginia, and has never read The Feminine Mystique, agrees, saying “Women’s roles were to stay at home cooking, cleaning, and raising the kids. I was a child in the 50s, but the moms I knew seemed content and happy enough to keep a nice home and not have to go to work.”
However, many women hid their struggles. They were told by society that they should accept “the role” and be “receptive, bearing, nurturing.” If they were unhappy and feeling unfulfilled, there was something wrong with them. Doctors would often prescribe medications, such as tranquilizers, to try to “fix” the “housewife syndrome.” Some women were even committed to mental hospitals to try to correct “their ‘distorted perceptions’ about male persecution” and “learn to value their ‘feminine social role.’”
Society Was the Problem
The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and affected many women. One reader of the book, who had sought psychiatric help the previous year, “sent a copy to her therapist,” including a “note saying he should read it before he ever again told a woman that all she needed was to come to terms with her ‘feminine nature.’” Another woman, before reading the book, recalled “I had the feeling (at 25!) that my life was over, and that nothing interesting would ever happen to me again…I told myself that the fix I was in was my own fault, that there was something wrong with me.” After reading The Feminine Mystique, women realized that they weren’t the problem “society [was] the problem.”
Judy McKibben recalls the changes from the 1950s to the 1960s “when I was a young kid [in the 1950s] it was odd if a woman was still single in her mid-20s. But as a teenager and young adult in the 60s women didn’t get married right out of high school as often. If you were single and in your thirties, you were considered a career woman, which wasn’t so bad anymore.” Judy continues “In the 60s it seemed that there were a lot more women in the workforce and there was more available childcare. A lot of families needed two incomes so they could keep up with the newest technologies and get a second car.”
Affected By the Message
The Feminine Mystique focused on the struggles of white, middle-class housewives, but those women weren’t the only people who were affected by the message. Although the struggles of African-American women were not included in The Feminine Mystique, some were still affected by the book. For instance, “Gloria Hull, a black feminist scholar and poet…read it in 1970 and…even today she remains “‘struck by its clear passion and radical persuasion.’”
The Feminine Mystique contains “diatribes against homosexuals,” but one stay-at-home gay man read the book in the 1990s and took “comfort from the idea that the depression he had at first experienced as a personal inadequacy was an understandable reaction to the lack of independent meaning in his life.”
The book also had an effect on some men growing up in the 1960s, even influencing the kind of women they dated and later married. The Feminine Mystique has flaws, but it did have a positive influence on many people. The book helped change perceptions and attitudes towards women’s roles, and for this reason, it is an important historical text.
Resources (Print & Interview)
Collins, G., 2003. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Coontz, S., 2012. A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Judy McKibben, interview October 3, 2013.