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Revisiting The Feminine Mystique:
Betty Friedan and the suburban housewife.

Judy Giles

This paper argues that one of the founding tenets of 1970s feminism, the oppression of women as wives and mothers in the home, drew heavily on cultural myths about suburban housewives. Central to the creation of such myths was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. The Feminine Mystique became a classic text of seventies' feminism and its analysis of women's oppression spoke to problems Friedan exposed.

By examining Friedan's biography and locating this in the historical and cultural context which produced The Feminine Mystique I intend to show how Friedan reinvented herself as a suburban housewife and in doing so was able to reach millions of women. However, I argue, that part of her popularity was due to her ability to adapt and use ideas that were already well-established in post-war America in order to 'expose' women's oppression. In a climate of Cold War paranoia and 'red-baiting' Friedan needed to disguise her radicalism if she was to get published. Her focus on the suburban housewife was a means by which this could be achieved. But in choosing to place the middle[class suburban housewife at the centre of her analysis, Friedan failed to confront the problems that faced women as paid workers or as a result of racism.

The myth of the suburban housewife has dominated feminist historiography of post-war America and the idea that women were driven back into domesticity after World War Two has become an orthodoxy. The Feminine Mystique was crucial to this process and has been accepted, with a few notable exceptions, by historians as 'telling the truth' about women in 1950s America. This paper challenges this view by placing Friedan's text both in its historical context and in the life story of its creator.

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