The Instant Expert: 'Desperate Housewives' and The Feminine Mystique

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week The Instant Expert looks back at Betty Friedan's revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique.

THE BASICS For the "happy housewives" of America - think Betty Draper in Mad Men - Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was a revolutionary handbook when it was published in 1963: "You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners," the author told Life magazine that year. Billed as "the year's most controversial best-seller", the book is credited by many with sparking the second-wave feminist movement. The first wave, in which women got the right to vote in the UK and North America in the early 20th century, lost momentum after the Second World War. While the US government had encouraged women to take up wartime work with its Rosie the Riveter "We Can Do It" campaign, it changed its tune after the war, urging them back to the home front so returning soldiers could take their places. In other words, "No, You Can't." And then that pesky Friedan woman piped up.

THE PERSON Born Betty Naomi Goldstein on February 4, 1921, Friedan died on her 85th birthday in 2006. When she wrote the book, she herself was a suburban housewife, a magazine freelancer married to Carl Friedan, with one daughter and two sons. (They divorced in 1969, and she later downplayed her claim that he beat her.) Friedan's book began with a questionnaire she sent to her fellow Smith College alumnae 15 years after graduation: 89 per cent were housewives, many feeling unfulfilled and regretting that they hadn't made more of their education. Friedan became a key figure in the US women's movement, as a founder of the National Organization for Women in 1966 and the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971. She also toured Iran with Germaine Greer in 1972, as guests of the Women's Organization of Iran.

THE PROBLEM Putting her finger on "The Problem That Has No Name", Friedan chronicled the dissatisfaction of women who were "brainwashed" after the Second World War into a "retreat to home". Contributing to the problem: women's magazines and advertising agencies, for creating the image of the perfect wife/mother/housekeeper; the theories of Sigmund Freud, particularly the idea that women suffer from a certain kind of envy; the social scientist Margaret Mead, for glorifying women's role as child-bearers; "sex-directed educators", for turning higher education into a way of preparing women for the home; and women themselves, who "found excuses for not facing the problems we once had the courage to face".

THE PRESCRIPTION Friedan called on women to "see housework for what it is - not a career, but something that must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible." Instead, they should focus on meaningful jobs and education. "The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own."

THE DISSENTING OPINION As with anything in feminism, there were many detractors, including other feminists who saw her as clinging to white middle-class values as the movement became more inclusive. As the Fear of Flying novelist Erica Jong said: "Betty was not an easy person. When you appeared on a panel with her, it was almost impossible to get a word in. On television, too, she could drown out even her most ardent supporters - not to mention her opponents. But that contrarian character was probably necessary for her to accomplish all she did."

THE LEGACY Even Friedan's critics give her credit for reviving feminism from its household cleaner-induced stupor. And while some might dismiss the book as a relic from a more naive feminist era, a new generation of women now have the privilege of being able to laugh (instead of cry) at Mad Men and shun housework altogether. And if they now have time for bigger battles, they have her to thank.

Feminist reading

A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN Based on a lecture she presented in 1928, Virginia Woolf argued that women need money – and a room of their own – to thrive creatively and intellectually.

THE SECOND SEX Simone de Beauvoir's book – published in France 1949 and in the US in 1953 – is seen as the precursor to The Feminine Mystique. The French existentialist looked at how women throughout history have been defined as secondary in relation to men.

THE FEMALE EUNUCH Germaine Greer later said her 1970 book was "conceived in reaction to The Feminine Mystique". In it, she argued that women are oppressed by the nuclear family.

MS. Founded by a group of women, including Gloria Steinem, in 1971 as an antidote to the commercial women's magazines of the time, Ms. continues to be published quarterly by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

THE BEAUTY MYTH Naomi Wolf's 1991 book became a touchstone of third-wave feminism, although Camille Paglia (author of another key book, Sexual Personae) dismissed her with: "She owes everything to that hair."

Sign up to:

* Please select one